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Why we love binge watching

Grown adults are looking like riled-up, frothing-at-the-mouth addicts in anticipation of Netflix’s release of the second season of “Orange is the New Black” tomorrow. Many of them plan to hunker down and not move from their TV or computer, even for food or bathroom breaks, to binge watch the entire season.

If watching were taking a drug, we’d be checking them into rehab. But it’s not. It does beg the question, why are so many of us watching hour upon hour in succession of a TV series, rather than waiting for the next episode as we had previously done?

It’s a perfect storm: We have availability (Netflix and other services like it have enabled it to happen). A change in the type of content— more intricate plotlines of heftier shows with intense characters—  allow an immersion and escape from stress and anxieties of the day. Plus, we are hardwired with empathy allowing us to identify with various characters who make us feel certain ways that we at some level enjoy. In addition, we have become a quicker fix society. Why wait for anything you enjoy? No one cares much for delayed gratification.

We are also desensitized to such behavior. The idea of being addicted to something or bingeing has lost some of the taboo by being discussed so much in conversations about much more dangerous or tawdry addictions. So the idea of being “hooked” on a show is both safe in reality and as risky as an addiction, providing safe excitement.

What do we watch? And what does that mean?

People tend to binge watch shows where they can identify with one or more characters. “Identify” does not mean they are actually like that character, but that there is pleasure in imagining what it feels like to be that character. So for example, Frank Underwood in “House of Cards,” is fun in fantasy for those who enjoy imagining grabbing power, manipulating others, doing what you like without having to regard others’ feelings. This does not mean you are a sociopath, it means that in fantasy it’s an exciting thought. This could even be because, in real life, you are highly concerned with what others feel and this is often a self-imposed obstacle for what you wish you had, and inreal life perhaps you feel like the doormat, the one who has no power.

Everyone has some sadistic and masochistic fantasy, some voyeuristic and exhibitionistic fantasy. They contain them in real life or may even be unaware of them. But watching lets you enjoy being Queen of the Dragons in “Game of Thrones,” who is desired by all men but powerful enough to slay them, an example of both exhibitionistic and sadistic fantasy.

We also have varying levels of anxiety, risk aversion vs. desire, sensitivity to violence and intensity of sexual desire. Shows that appeal to those specifics are more likely to be winners for us. So some will find “Game of Thrones” too gory to be enjoyable, for others that very goriness will be a draw.  For some all the nudity feels like a safe and sanctioned viewing of erotica. Being at the edge of your seat in an anxious state feels like excitement to many who watched “Breaking Bad,” but anxiety that just feels like anxiety is a reason others will avoid the show, even if they do like the idea of being that chemistry teacher whose had it.

Is there harm in binge watching? As in most things psychological, it’s all a matter of its effect on your functioning. If you can afford that time, really, and its not taking away from work you really need to do, kids you really should be hanging with, a spouse who’s had it with your absence, then no harm, no foul. If you need it, even at a personal cost, or you don’t really feel in control of it and the ability to say “that’s enough” until another day then you had better step away from the remote, do some watching detox, and avoid the binge.

Dr. Gail Saltz is an associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and the author of "Becoming Real: Defeating the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back."  @DrGailSaltz