Hedonic Adaptation: Why Netflix Should Limit Binge-Watching

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Courtesy: © 2014 Netflix

By Nate Stickney

On February 14, 2014, Netflix released the second season of the hit television program “House of Cards.”  By the end of the weekend, roughly 2% of the Netflix subscribers on U.S. broadband networks had finished all 13 episodes, with similar numbers in Europe. [1]  This “binging” phenomenon isn’t new, with 50,000 subscribers watching “the entire 13-episode fourth season of “Breaking Bad” the day prior to its fifth-season premiere on AMC.”[2]  Undoubtedly Netflix has seen success, thanks both to its original content and the popularity of shows like “Breaking Bad.”

However, are consumers deriving the maximum utility from their subscription when they consume television shows in this “binging” manner?  Aside from the health risks outlined elsewhere, are there negatives to watching an entire season, or even multiple episodes in a row?  A couple studies on the concept of “hedonic adaptation” can help answer this question.

Leif D. Nelson and Tom Meyvis have written two instructive papers on the topic.  In the first one, Interrupted Consumption: Adaptation and the Disruption of Hedonic Experience, they, “investigate consumers’ expectations about the desirability of taking breaks in their affective experiences (i.e., when do consumers take a break?) as well as the actual effect those breaks have on enjoyment (i.e., when should consumers take a break?).

Their results are fascinating.  In general, consumers anticipate wanting to take a break during negative experiences, but not wanting to take a break during positive experiences.  However, their intuitions are incorrect.  Their paper highlights that negative experiences are less negative when they are not broken up, and positive experiences are enjoyed more when they are broken up.

One can clearly see where this is leading.  In fact, in a follow-up paper, Enhancing the Television-Viewing Experience through Commerical Interruptions, Nelson and Meyvis were joined by Jeff Galak, where they tested commercial interruptions in the television viewing experience.  Their results made advertisers jump, and will surprise DVR fans and Netflix watchers.  Participants in their study who watched the show with commercials enjoyed it significantly more than those who watched it without commercials.  All of this is despite that the participants anticipated that the opposite would be true.

The results of this are consistent with and part of a concept called “hedonic adaptation,” or “decreasing marginal utility.”  Basically, once people have received their initial enjoyment from something—the first act of a TV show or the first bite of cake—the following enjoyment is less until they finish.  This is because their point of reference changes—they adapt to a new status quo.  However, if they take a break—commercials, or in the case of cake, simply wait a bit longer for the next bite—our status quo re-adapts back to normal, making the second act, or next bite of cake, of equal enjoyment to the first.

The same holds true in reverse for negative experiences.  By splitting them up, people’s reference point adjusts to normal after a negative experience, meaning you experience the negativity time and again.  The most common way people think of this is with removing a Band-aid.  If one pulls it off little by little, they experience that pain as many times as it takes to remove the Band-aid because you revert back to a pain-free state after each little bit.

Another important point about the positive and negative experiences is the asymmetry of the magnitude people feel from them.  This means that gaining $10 provides less pleasure than the loss that we feel from losing $10.  Logic then suggests that, to maximize utility and enjoyment, people should aggregate negative experiences (take the Band-aid off in one, painful swoop) and segregate positive experiences (small, distributed bites of cake).

So back to Netflix.  Simply by proposing this idea, Netflix would incur backlash from consumers.  (How dare they, large corporation, limit my ability to consume!)  There is no way that I would, in fact, enjoy it more if I could only watch it at once!  Indeed, Netflix does not want to limit consumer freedom.

A more thoughtful solution would be to inform consumers that research has shown that their enjoyment from the next episode will increase if they take a break before watching it.  Even more thoughtful would be to recommend that they aggregate their losses, and complete all of their chores in the hour away from Netflix.

Further research could be done on this topic as well.  Is the small break while choosing the next episode enough of a break to readjust to the status quo?  Is it the actual act of watching that needs broken up, or is it enough to alternate between various shows during a “binging” session?

Landon Yoder and Duff Janus contributed to this article.


[1] http://variety.com/2014/digital/news/house-of-cards-binge-watching-2-of-u-s-subs-finished-entire-series-over-first-weekend-1201114030/

[2] http://variety.com/2013/tv/news/house-of-cards-lures-binge-viewers-1118065641/

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