Does Netflix make us more impatient?

Streaming services are more popular than ever, but what effect does this have on our personalities?

According to one report, traditional US media services such as cable television and satellite lost approximately 1.8 million subscribers in 2017. The primary cause of this exodus is, as you probably already knew, streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. Consumers are rapidly shifting towards on-demand content, free of advertisements and without long waits between programs. However, what (if any) behavioral effect does this have on the millions of people who now favor streaming?

One possibility is that ever-present access to what we want is raising expectations and making us more impatient and impulsive. Consider, for example, the urgent demand for a second season of “Making a Murderer only a month after it debuted (the article notes that the first season was a decade in the making). In this short article, I want to share some reasons for why streaming content could make us more impulsive, as well as some original research I conducted on the subject. More specifically, I’ll present a short survey I conducted with an online sample.

Mobile phone use and impulsivity

While as of yet there is no direct evidence (to the best of my knowledge) for a link between streaming content and impulsivity, there is related evidence. For example, to heavy mobile phone dependence (e.g) has been linked to impulsive and impatient behavior (e.g. Wilmer & Chein, 2016). In an illustrative experimental study, providing non-users with a smart phone led to greater impulsiveness and impatience after only three months when compared with a control group (Hadar et al., 2015).

The accessibility of mobile phones, and the relationship to impatience should extend to other forms of digital behavior. In the context of streaming shows, we often no longer have to wait a week (or more) to experience the conclusion or plot twist of each episode. Netflix dumps entire seasons at a time and automatically queues new episodes to encourage binging. Personally, I know many people now who refuse to watch series until the entire season has aired, thereby allowing them to watch the show on their own terms.

Unfortunately, streaming services and binge-watching have only begun to catch on as topics of academic research, and so the research on them is limited (e.g. Schweidel & Moe, 2016). To explore this topic, it was necessary to go beyond the literature.

Putting it to the test

To answer this question, I ran a casual pilot study, using an online sample sourced from “r/SampleSize” community on Reddit dedicated to survey research (academic, marketing, and general interest). Luckily, I was able to acquire 44 willing subjects to fill out a short survey for me. The objective? To see if there’s any link between consuming streaming content and general impatience or impulsivity.

To this end, I asked participants a series of questions about their media viewing habits. Whether or not they had a membership to a streaming service (i.e. Netflix, Hulu, Twitch), how many memberships they had, and how much content they streamed per day. Next, I asked participants to make a very simple choice. I gave them the hypothetical scenario that they could have 45 dollars in 3 days, or 70 dollars in 3 months. Previous academic work has used successfully used this question (albeit in GBP) as a general measure of impatience or delay of gratification: the ability to delay smaller short-term rewards in favor of larger long-term rewards (Reimers et al., 2009).

Lastly, I asked the respondents to fill out a short 15 item impulsivity measure also drawn from academic research (e.g. “I act impulsively”; Spinella, 2007). Although impulsivity is a theoretically distinct construct, characteristics of impulsive behavior such as urgency and a lack of premeditation are very much consistent with impatient behavior (Whiteside & Lynam, 2001).

Streaming services are the norm

It was not surprising to find that most of the respondents had access to at least one streaming membership (90%), and most had more than one (an average of 1.86 memberships per respondent). Relatedly, the respondents indicated watching approximately 2.43 hours a day of streaming content.

While this may seem high, it is worth noting that the sample was skewed young as a result of using Reddit as a source. However, both genders were represented (25 women and 19 men). More than half of the respondents (27) also reported having a college education or higher (i.e. undergraduate or graduate degrees).

How does streaming affect impatience?

To answer my question as to whether streaming content affects delay of gratification, I conducted what is known as a logistic regression. In non-statistical terms, I was looking to see if there was any effect of streaming behavior on the two-option choice (45 dollars in 3 days, or 70 dollars in 3 months). As an additional check, I also included age in the regression (i.e. younger people may be more impatient, and might have more time to watch streaming content).

As expected, I did indeed find a significant effect (technically marginally significant effect, p = .051) between the number of hours of streaming content and the likelihood of choosing the smaller (earlier) reward. More specifically, the analysis indicated that for each additional hour of streaming content, users were approximately twice as likely to choose the smaller early reward (i.e. act impatiently). As shown in the table below, only about 16% of those who watched 2 hours or less opted for the small reward. However, this percentage jumped to 50% for those who watched more than two hours a day.

Interestingly, age was not a significant predictor of impatience (which may be attributable to the narrow age range of the sample). Similarly, I didn’t find that impulsivity was associated with the number of hours watched per day, which came as some surprise. One might expect that people who act on impulse would be more likely to consume more streaming content.

Correlation, not causation

While it would be fun to jump to the conclusion that heavy streaming leads to greater impatience, this conclusion is far from certain. Another possibility is that impatient people are more likely to indulge in binge-watching. When Netflix teases viewers with the next episode, impatient people may be unable to help themselves, and skip dinner in favor of discovering the fate of Steven Avery. The resullts do not provide any information on causation. However, they do indicate that there is some relationship between impatience and the amount of content people stream on a daily basis.

Another caution of these results is the admittedly skewed sample. I used digitally savvy participants who were overwhelmingly familiar with streaming, and who were often on the younger, well-educated side. There is no guarantee that these results would extend to a broader sample. Nevertheless, it is an interesting finding that suggests that new digital technologies are very much linked to our behavior.

Follow-up research could try to nail down causality by broadening the sample and randomly assigning people of all ages to two groups, and encouraging half to stream content for a long period each day, and the other half to abstain from streaming. If, after a period (such as a week), the streaming group demonstrated greater impatience, then causality could be better ascertained.

References

Billieux, J., Van der Linden, M., d’Acremont, M., Ceschi, G., & Zermatten, A. (2007). Does impulsivity relate to perceived dependence on and actual use of the mobile phone?. Applied Cognitive Psychology21(4), 527-537.

Hadar, A. A., Eliraz, D., Lazarovits, A., Alyagon, U., and Zangen, A. (2015). Using longitudinal exposure to causally link smartphone usage to changes in behavior, cognition and right prefrontal neural activity. Brain Stimul. 8, 318. doi: 10.1016/j.brs.2015.01.032

Cord-Cutting Continues to Impact Pay-TV Services, OTT a Boon. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/cord-cutting-continues-impact-pay-184606011.html

Making a Murderer, Master of None, Kimmy Schmidt: Netflix binge-watchers impatient for new content. http://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/binge-watchng-netflix-impatience-1.3407988

Reimers, S., Maylor, E. A., Stewart, N., & Chater, N. (2009). Associations between a one-shot delay discounting measure and age, income, education and real-world impulsive behavior. Personality and Individual Differences47(8), 973-978.

Schweidel, D. A., & Moe, W. W. (2016). Binge watching and advertising. Journal of Marketing80(5), 1-19.

Spinella, M. (2007). Normative data and a short form of the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale. International Journal of Neuroscience117(3), 359-368.

Whiteside, S. P., & Lynam, D. R. (2001). The Five Factor Model and impulsivity: using a structural model of personality to understand impulsivity. Personality and Individual Differences30(669), 689.

Wilmer, H. H., and Chein, J. M. (2016). Mobile technology habits: patterns of association among device usage, intertemporal preference, impulse control, and reward sensitivity. Psychon. Bull. Rev. 23, 1607–1614. doi: 10.3758/s13423-016-1011-z