Everyone’s got that show -- the one they turn on for background noise while they’re cooking or cleaning, or the one they put on before bed when starting a movie seems too taxing. You don’t want to watch or listen to something that’s going to take too much effort or attention, but no matter what, you still enjoy the hell out of seeing whatever it is for the 43rd time.
That show could be “Friends.” Or “The Office,” or “Seinfeld.” Cable networks have our backs by showing reruns in between primetime hours, and with streaming services like Netflix churning out our favorite series in full, what reason do we have to ever watch anything new?
Well, because there’s that borderline overwhelming anxiety when you realize just how many new shows (or movies, or books…) exist that you haven’t delved into yet. So...you turn on season 3 of “Friends” again, because that list is too staggering to think about right now. Maybe next week.
Luckily for us, wanting -- nay, needing -- to watch “Love Actually” and “Elf” as many times as possible once Thanksgiving is over is all due to science. Don’t you love blaming your questionable decisions on psychology?
The act of repetition typically falls into four categories: habits (something automatic you do consistently), addictions (something unmanageable that you do consistently), rituals (like your tradition of baking gingerbread cookies every December) and the status-quo basis (sticking with a past decision because it’s familiar). But rewatching the episode of the “Kardashians” where Kim loses her diamond earring in the ocean, surprisingly, doesn’t fit into any of these categories (although I'll watch that scene again and again any day).
Instead, the culprit is good ol’ nostalgia.
We’ve come a long way from when the word “nostalgia” was first coined: In the 17th century, it was considered a neurological disease among Swiss mercenaries, who were just, you know, homesick.
Today, we know that nostalgia can be a bit melancholy, sure, but it’s usually applied to how you feel thinking about stringing up Christmas lights with your grandma as a kid or falling asleep on the couch and waking up in your bed the next morning -- all good things, all good things. We’re mostly thinking about autobiographical nostalgia, the kind that comes from seeing something again from your own experiences, which draws more emotion than historical nostalgia (reminiscing about the past in general).
For example, Clay Routledge, a psychologist who studies nostalgia at North Dakota State University, found that people who listened to songs that were popular when they were younger reported feeling more loved. I get it -- I also feel warm and fuzzy inside whenever I hear Jesse McCartney’s “Beautiful Soul.”
There’s also the fact that we know what’s going to happen at the end of the movie or book we’re experiencing for the umpteenth time, therefore we know how we’ll feel when it’s over. Humans hate wasting time, and what’s worse than paying $15 to see that new film in the theaters just to hate it?
On another note, with repetition comes affection -- you probably don’t remember how you started the tradition of grabbing a burger from the corner shack every time you visit your hometown, but you know you love doing it. Likewise, science says the more you watch the same movie, the more you’ll enjoy it -- such is the “mere exposure effect.” I know I’ll praise “Serendipity” until my breath runs out, even though I can’t imagine I had that passionate of a reaction upon first viewing.
We’re not going to sit through another go of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” if we loathe Jim Carrey, though -- it’s all about that unexplainable happy feeling. Psychologist Neel Burton told the Huffington Post, "Nostalgia can lend us much-needed context, perspective and direction, reminding and reassuring us that our life is not as banal as it may seem. It also tells us that there have been -- and will once again be -- meaningful moments and experiences."
So, rewatching your favorite Christmas movie this month is helping you reminisce and produce some heavy nostalgia, which in turn gives you a little mood boost.
Pair this mere exposure effect with nostalgia, and bam: you have yourself a weapon of mass repetition. Time to crack open “Harry Potter” for the fifth time!