Why Do We Give Up on TV Shows? Or Keep Watching TV Shows We Hate?

Sometimes the time we put into a TV show isn't worth it. Here's the science behind why we hate-watch and give up on TV shows.
Why Do We Give Up on TV Shows? Or Keep Watching TV Shows We Hate?

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The most dramatic exit I ever had from a TV show was Game of Thrones.

The year was 2015, and we were deep into Season 5 of the previously acclaimed (now lambasted) mega-hit series. The plot had been crumbling for some time, and despite the writing on the wall I'd been trying to stick it out.

I'd spent a long time with this series prior to this happening. I started reading the books when I was just thirteen and had been a diehard fan in the earlier seasons. After a particularly bad episode, I finally had to admit defeat. I couldn't enjoy it on any level, so I quit.

This was the most painful "breakup" that I've ever had with a piece of media. After sinking so much time into Game of Thrones with little return, I'm still not over the end result. But why do we give up on TV shows, when it's "just" TV (and not something more serious, like buying a house)? Or why can't we give up on TV shows, even though we're well aware that we're clinging to them far past the point of relevancy? What are the psychological reasons behind this?

Why We Give Up on TV Shows

The psychology behind this phenomenon is complex but also inherently familiar, as Dr. Shahram Heshma explains for Psychology Today. According to research conducted by Chin et al. (summarized by Heshma), "between 30 percent and 90 percent of American adults experience boredom at some point in their daily lives." In her article for the Time, writer Jamie Ducharme also talks about the author (and psychology lecturer) Sandi Mann, who explains that "boredom is 'a search for neural stimulation that isn't satisfied.'"

This combined need for neural stimulation coupled with the frequency in which boredom occurs makes it one of the most common reasons why we drop TV shows instead of clinging to them. Your mind wanders and your attention drifts. Soon you'll be distracted by something else.

In a world that is oversaturated with creative content, the two things that attract the most attention are anger and novelty. If you hate something but you're still engaged by it, you might stick around out of morbid curiosity. We've seen this time and again with clickbait articles being written with the expressed purpose of stoking outrage for profit.

At the same time, a show that has been running for many, many seasons can no longer attract the attention of novelty (i.e. being new and exciting). This is a big reason why I dropped Supernatural after Season 5. I didn't hate it—and still don't—but it got repetitive and I had other things to focus on. So I just sort of faded away from it, as we all do with a TV show that fails to hold our interest. And I think it's important to realize that getting bored with something after a set period of time is a natural response. You know it'll be a time sink, so you budget your time much more judiciously. Ergo, your threshold for dipping out because of boredom is lower.

But what if you do the opposite? What if you cling to a TV show even if your mind tells you to "put this down?'

Why We Hate-Watch TV Shows

The problem with clinging onto things we shouldn't is partly due to the "sunk cost fallacy," a psychological phenomenon where we put so much time and effort into something that we don't want that effort to go to waste, making us feel like we have more to lose by dipping out.

When it comes to TV shows in particular, this condition is exacerbated by feelings of nostalgia that might arise when you remember that the show was genuinely good at one point. You want that joy back.

I think fans of any major franchise can relate to this, because when you become a fan of a franchise or long-running TV show you get invested in it in more ways than one. You put a lot of emotional effort, money, and social capita into the series, through friendships, fandom meetups, and collectibles to prove that you are a "true fan"—to the point where your life would be less full without it.

As time goes on, you become aware of this fact and you get worried about it. Not without good reason, either. On a personal level, where would I be without my investment in the Star Wars series and the friends and professional connections I made there? Probably nowhere near as far along as I am now, or as happy.

Suddenly it becomes so much more than a TV show, and when a TV show starts heading south for all the wrong reasons we feel personally betrayed by that. We sometimes think, "How dare you do this to me? I spent all this time on you. I trusted you to do right." Like a disappointed parent.

We start to bargain with this show through the five stages of grief. This is what causes us to stick with a series and say, "No, it will get better," even though the warning signs are clear. This is what leads us to continue watching, even if it makes us angry; the bargaining with our grief pops up in the current trend of petitions to rewrite the end of TV shows and the threat of boycotts. It's like we're trying to stave off the inevitable end result (and our losses) through increasingly desperate measures. We know that if we drop the TV show now that we'll have wasted years on it.

Don't Be Afraid to Pull the Plug

I'm of firm mind that if you don't like a TV show, then you should just drop it. Drop it the whole way—the entire thing—and let your eyeballs (and the money they bring) speak for themselves.

If you've invested a lot of time into a show, initially it will hurt a lot to drop the series. You'll feel angry about it, as I did, but you'll also feel much better in the long run. There are just too many things out there to watch, with so little time. It makes no sense to waste your days on the things that bore you.