The Science Behind Why We Can't Stop Watching Reruns

Ever wonder why once you’ve exhausted all the new episodes that premiere each week, you often go back and watch a favorite show’s reruns one by one, working your way back through the seasons? Anyone who’s seen my Netflix account knows I’m guilty, and it’s either Friday Night Lights or Ally McBeal that I watch on repeat (depending on my mood). But with so much new content out there, what compels us to watch the same thing over again if we already know what’s going to happen?

“The things that we do feel compelled to re-watch or re-read are those that provide us with either comfort or perspective,” says psychologist Neel Burton, author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, in a recent Huffington Post article. He insists that although there are new things out there for us to watch or do, our rerun obsession has a lot to do with nostalgia.

But how does it work exactly? When we feel blue or something bad happens, we can summon up these old episodes that remind us of times past (maybe when things were better, or just different), allowing us to escape reality for just a little bit, Burton says. He explains that nostalgia can lead to context, perspective, and direction in our lives. “It also tells us that there have been—and will once again be—meaningful moments and experiences,” he says.

It also may be because we're attracted to repetition and predictability, surmises Derek Thompson in a piece he wrote for The Atlantic.  "… We like something more because we’ve been previously exposed to it." And when we speak of nostalgia, it is not necessarily a specific time we are wistful for, but just the hope for something else, says Burton. 

Furthermore, Burton insists there is nothing wrong with these feelings as long as you're not throwing the covers over your head and avoiding living your life. Research also shows that nostalgia can lead to optimism about the future and can remedy feelings of both anxiety and loneliness. So it’s enjoyable and good for your health? Let’s queue up the next show.

To read more about this topic, buy Burton’s book Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions here.

Do you re-watch TV shows often? How does it make you feel?