Updated: Jul 31, 2019
Topics in this article were discussed on BBC radio Hereford&Worcester's breakfast show; and BBC radio Nottingham's Drive Time
A question I've been asked a lot of late is how is it that we can become so obsessed, or even "addicted" with programmes or people we barely know.
Most of us are familiar with Eminem's obsessive fan "Stan" and might even muse upon how someone can become so consumed by a person we've never even met. At least with the overwhelming emotions a "crush" can have, the object of our affection may have responded from time to time.
The first answer is - as humans we want to feel. We have evolved to experience and demonstrate complex emotions. Largely, those emotions evolved to keep us safe. Feeling fear would help us survive in a threatening environment, and feeling love helps us form companionship which in turn may help propagate the species, or at the very least enable us to be part of a community. Humans also instinctively respond to the neonatal features of babies, or the young of animals which in turn encourages us to protect them…thus ensuring their survival. However, as society evolved, so have we – and sometimes a very powerful form of defence, attack or superiority can be the ability to firstly hide emotion, and secondly to “manage” it in order to use it to our advantage. Further, if "everyone" is doing this then "wearing our heart on our sleeve" can make us vulnerable, and that could disadvantage us - so we learn to "play the game" too. Unfortunately, this means that we are more often hiding what we really feel and perhaps we need an outlet for a bit of honesty.
TV gives us that means of expression.
The “Laws of attraction”
Aside from the physical attractiveness of the "Y" or "hourglass" physique as evolutionary hangovers, social psychology research suggests a few reasons why we may be drawn to someone or something:
- Proximity. College students living in the same halls of residence were more likely to form friendships and relationships. This makes practical sense – not only are you experiencing a similar surrounding environment, but you have more opportunity to interact with each other as well.
- The “Matching hypotheses”. Participants who were asked to rate one half of a couple for attractiveness, often paired them with another person whom they had given a similar rating. When participants were given an arbitrary rating for attractiveness and randomly matched with another person (although they were told their ratings matched), significantly more people who knew they had higher ratings judged their attractiveness level of their “match” more harshly. However, ratings for attractiveness were less important when participants had a chance to get to know each other first.
- Exposure. In psychological terms, this merely refers to how often you see someone. Exposure differs from proximity as it does not need to include interaction, it can happen from afar (eg. through the media). Participants tended to rate people whom they recognised more attractive than people they did not.
It is "Exposure" which may begin to explain our sense of obsession with TV shows. The more we see a person or a character the more familiar we begin to be with them. And despite -or perhaps because of- the complexity of our brains, we cannot always tell what is a real emotion and what is part of our response to a "fantastical" situation we watched on television - and thus we begin to feel a connection with the role.
That connection is deepened when the character or the situation they are in resonates with us in some way. If we see a character that has traits or behaviours (or even looks) that are similar to ourselves, we feel an affinity with them. In some ways a criticism of them feels like a criticism of ourself. If on the other hand it is behaviour we have tried to supress or a situation which has hurt us in the past, we may begin to view that character (or the person who causes the situational pain) with anger or contempt.
The solution here is to recognise that you are feeling those strong emotions and - ideally with a professional - begin to work through the root cause as it pertains to you.
The amount of vitriol expressed when Daenerys began her descent into madness speaks to another aspect of how we view TV. When Game of Thrones started we had no expectations, but Dany began to emerge as a fair, just and powerful ruler - a "worthy" winner. Whether it was the slow burn of the first seven seasons in comparisson to the "Christmas market" style rush of the last that was the problem, or it was the writing, the cut scenes, or anything else production related, many of us felt very short-changed with the fate of the mother of dragons. We had invested in her...and in the same way as we allowed our opinion of Jaime to change for the better (before that too was ripped away), perhaps if we'd been carried along with her fall, we might have felt more satisfied.
In the same way as a trusted friend does something out of character making us re-think our whole relationship - Season 8 saw those bridges being burned as fast as Drogon razed the Iron Throne to the ground. We were not ready and we were not happy.
In psychology there is a bias called "sunk cost" which keeps even the most sensible of us in relationships because we fear we will lose all we have invested...and a long running TV series is quite an investment of time and commitment - and that's before the extra significance we feel if we "saw ourselves" in any of the roles (before they changed).
A relatively new psychological phenomenon which really only entered research literature around 1996 - the advent of social media. While projection and investment keeps us watching, exposure deepens our connection, and the ease at which TV is now accessible on demand, it is perhaps FOMO (Fear of missing out) that is the crowning glory of our obsession which borders on addiction.
Fear of missing out is an anxiety that can be traced back to the dawn of civilisation.
Try it - I yawn, and you'll yawn. This is a hangover from our past as a collective. It was safer for the community to sleep at the same time because it meant that no-one was sneaking into your cave to steal your stuff. We have a fundamental drive to be part of a group. We have always been safer together, and inclusion - even if you are near the bottom of the pack - still means you are part of something bigger. As disturbingly cute and dog-like alien Stitch puts it "Ohana means family, and family means no-body gets left behind, or forgotten" (still brings a tear to my eye).
Psychologist William Schultz also stated that inclusion was a fundamental human need - as essential to us as food and water for survival. ...and for years "FOMO" has been used as a highly successful sales technique:
- X is cool
- Others have X
- You want to be cool right - because the alternative is unpleasant
- Buy X now...limited time only/best price for the first respondants/I'm doing this special deal for you
Being included makes us feel special.
Being rejected - like Stan - even though the reality is the object of your affection (if they are a TV show, character, personality or situation) may not really know you exist - hurts. It REALLY hurts!
Game of Thrones, Eurovision, Reality TV - anything in the shared sphere (made smaller through social media) gives us something to talk about - especially if those we see on a day to day basis (eg at work, or our friends) are watching it, we otherwise would have been left out. Love Island, for example, might give us an insight into the world of a generation we are no longer part of - eg. our children, or our older siblings - thus helping us become included should the opportunity arise. AND with the advent of social media not only is there a chance to actually communicate with the people that you are exposed to, but if you are one of the first people to say or notice something which "trends" wow - that dopamine rush when the "likes" start generating is a sense of inclusion of the highest order (until you're old news...and then you've tasted "popularity"). Or if you don't watch then you might have to avoid a whole sphere of contact until you've gotten up to date, and little else makes you feel more like a social pariah these days.
And again, these characters are products of drama, (and even Reality TV has an edited narrative that makes it more exciting for the viewer) so not only do we watch to fit into the real world, we've connected to the characters in the TV one too...we love to love, and to hate - ultimately, we want to continue to feel.
BUT, the key message here is - as much as the brain can confuse emotions - try to keep TV real. Or rather, try and keep life real.
Spend time each day focusing on what you have; interacting with the people around you for what they are; appreciating your life as you experience it.
If things need changing, change them, but do it as an exciting part of life's journey - not false hope.
If you want "likes" - be with people who like you!
If you want connection - make time for your friends, epsecially those good old pals you don't often see. (I used to spend hours on the phone with my bestie, and I do sometimes wonder if I spent the time I do on social media in that phone call or even going to see her if I'd feel more satisfied!)
Bear in mind just because technology has made it easier to see what people are up to doesn't mean that - nor the likes if you do happen to "trend" will ever be as fulfilling as simply being with the people you love. Technology is a tool, not a way of life - no matter how much it feels otherwise.
And most of all - instead of seeing TV characters like the proverbial "I've got a 'friend' who..." try and live your life honestly and express your truth...not in a way that upsets or antagonises, but in a way where you feel you no longer need the excuse of expressing yourself by talking about (or through) others!
Try and make what you don't want to miss out on less about a presentation of "reality", and much more about real life*.
Audrey is a Chartered Psychologist (CPsychol), and the author of "The Leader's Guide to Mindfulness " (2018) and "Be A Great Manager - Now" (2016) She is a CPD Accredited speaker, trainer, and qualified FIRO-B and NLP Practitioner. She is the founding Development Coach and Training Consultant with her training consultancy CLICK Training, and the resident psychologist on The Chrissy B Show (Sky191), the UK's only TV programme dedicated to mental health and wellbeing. She consults, coaches and often presents at National and International conferences in the fields of leadership and team cohesion, as well as being part of the Amity University conference panel. She currently lectures in Personal Development and Mindfulness and provides psychological consultancy in these areas to organisations.
*I note that our need for escapism into a virtual world may be much more to do with the state of the world, and perhaps we need to look to answer the bigger question - how do we heal society?