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The Psychology Behind My NetFlix Watchlist

I live in Canada – which means I’m going into hibernation for the next 5 months. People tell me I should take up a winter activity. I tell them I have one. Bitching. About winter – specifically. You have your hobbies – and I have mine.

The other thing I do in the winter is watch movies. And being a with it, tech-savvy guy, I have cut the cord and get my movie fix through not one, but three streaming services: Netflix, Amazon Prime and Crave (a Canadian service). I’ve discovered that the psychology of Netflix is fascinating. It’s the Paradox of Choice playing out in streaming time. It’s the difference between what we say we do and what we actually do.

For example, I do have a watch list. It has somewhere around a hundred items on it. I’ll probably end up watching about 20% of them. The rest will eventually go gentle into that good Netflix Night. And according to a recent post on Digg, I’m actually doing quite well. According to the admittedly small sample chronicled there, the average completion rate is somewhere between 5 and 15%.

When it comes to compiling viewing choices, I’m an optimizer. And I’m being kind to myself. Others, less kind, refer to it as obsessive behavior. This is referring to satisficing/optimizing spectrum of decision making. I put an irrational amount of energy into the rationalization of my viewing options. The more effort you put into decision making, the closer you are to the optimizing end of the spectrum. If you make choices quickly and with your gut, you’re a satisficer.

What is interesting about Netflix is that it defers the Paradox of Choice. I dealt with this in a previous column. But I admit I’m having second thoughts. Netflix’s watch list provides us with a sort of choosing purgatory..a middle ground where we can save according to the type of watcher we think we are. It’s here where the psychology gets interesting. But before we go there, let’s explore some basic psychological principles that underpin this Netflix paradox of choice.

Of Marshmallows and Will Power

In the 1960’s, Walter Mischel and his colleagues conducted the now famous Marshmallow Test, a longitudinal study that spanned several years. The finding (which currently is in some doubt) was that children who had – when they were quite young – the willpower to resist immediately taking a treat (the marshmallow) put in front of them in return for a promise of a greater treat (two marshmallows)  in 15 minutes would later do substantially better in many aspects of their lives (education, careers, social connections, their health). Without getting into the controversial aspects of the test, let’s just focus on the role of willpower in decision making.

Mischel talks about a hot and cool system of making decisions that involve self-gratification. The “hot” is our emotions and the “cool” is our logic. We all have different set-points in the balance between hot and cool, but where these set points are in each of us depends on will power. The more willpower we have, the more likely it is that we’ll delay an immediate reward in return for a greater reward sometime in the future.

Our ability to rationalize and expend cognitive resources on a decision is directly tied to our willpower. And experts have learned that our will power is a finite resource. The more we use it in a day, the less we have in reserve. Psychologists call this “ego-depletion” And a loss of will power leads to decision fatigue. The more tired we become, the less our brain is willing to work on the decisions we make. In one particularly interesting example, parole boards are much more likely to let prisoners go either first thing in the morning or right after lunch than they are as the day wears on. Making the decision to grant a prisoner his or her freedom is a decision that involves risk. It requires more thought.  Keeping them in prison is a default decision that – cognitively speaking – is a much easier choice.

Netflix and Me: Take Two

Let me now try to rope all this in and apply it to my Netflix viewing choices. When I add something to my watch list, I am making a risk-free decision. I am not committing to watch the movie now. Cognitively, it costs me nothing to hit the little plus icon. Because it’s risk free, I tend to be somewhat aspirational in my entertainment foraging. I add foreign films, documentaries, old classics, independent films and – just to leaven out my selection – the latest audience-friendly blockbusters. When it comes to my watch list additions, I’m pretty eclectic.

Eventually, however, I will come back to this watch list and will actually have to commit 2 hours to watching something. And my choices are very much affected by decision fatigue. When it comes to instant gratification, a blockbuster is an easy choice. It will have lots of action, recognizable and likeable stars, a non-mentally-taxing script – let’s call it the cinematic equivalent of a marshmallow that I can eat right away. All my other watch list choices will probably be more gratifying in the long run, but more mentally taxing in the short term. Am I really in the mood for a European art-house flick? The answer probably depends on my current “ego-depletion” level.

This entire mental framework presents its own paradox of choice to me every time I browse through my watchlist. I know I have previously said the Paradox of Choice isn’t a thing when it comes to Netflix. But I may have changed my mind. I think it depends on what resources we’re allocating. In Barry Schwartz’s book titled the Paradox of Choice, he cites Sheena Iyengar’s famous jam experiment. In that instance, the resource was the cost of jam. In that instance, the resource was the cost of jam. But if we’re talking about 2 hours of my time – at the end of a long day – I have to confess that I struggle with choice, even when it’s already been short listed to a pre-selected list of potential entertainment choices. I find myself defaulting to what seems like a safe choice – a well-known Hollywood movie – only to be disappointed when the credits roll. When I do have the will power to forego the obvious and take a chance on one of my more obscure picks, I’m usually grateful I did.

And yes, I did write an entire column on picking a movie to watch on Netflix. Like I said, it’s winter and I had a lot of time to kill.