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TV So Good It Hurts: The Psychology of Watching Breaking Bad

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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After a five season run, tonight marks the conclusion of the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad — one of the most tragic, stressful, gut-wrenching television experiences I have ever endured. Each excruciating, emotionally taxing episode made me feel like I was walking on shards of glass.

I know that many other people can feel my pain. Ratings for the show’s final season rank Breaking Bad as the most popular non-football program on Sunday nights with 6.4 million viewers. Why would so many of us voluntarily spend our leisure time, designed for escape, watching a show that can make us feel so emotionally exhausted?

This is not a new question for media psychologists who have been trying to understand why people subject themselves to entertainment that they know will elicit negative emotions.

Dolf Zillmann, widely recognized as the founder of entertainment psychology as a field of study, theorized that the answer lies in the emotional intensity these types of shows make us feel. His excitation transfer theory says that we can experience a wide range of emotions while we watch distressing shows, and that all the excitement from each of those emotions builds up while we watch. (For an example that might resonate with Breaking Bad viewers, think about how the intensity of your emotions built up when you watched the events unfold during the great train heist in Season 5).

Experiencing intense stress might not be very pleasurable while it’s happening, but according to excitation transfer theory, all that intensity can carry over to boost positive emotions like relief or happiness if the episode ends on a good note. In other words, enduring some emotional turmoil during viewing can actually heighten the rewards of a happy ending.

According to Zillmann, our feelings toward the characters are also an important ingredient to the enjoyment of suspense. According to his affective disposition theory, people enjoy entertainment when characters that they identify as the “good guys” win, and the “bad guys” get the justice they deserve. (This theory also works nicely to explain why people enjoy it when their sports teams defeat notorious rivals).

But there’s only one problem with both these theories when it comes to Breaking Bad: this show doesn’t have happy endings or clearly defined “good guys” and “bad guys”. Excitation transfer and affective disposition theories do work well for explaining why people enjoy crime procedurals like CSI, or Law and Order, but they do not apply as well to the surge of television shows with morally ambiguous characters and tragic or cliff-hanging endings. Breaking Bad, The Wire, House of Cards, Lost, Sopranos, and Dexter, are part of a long list of shows that lead us to root for antihero protagonists who have done morally reprehensible things. And rarely do their episode endings reassure us, or leave us on a happy note.

So again, media psychologists are back to square one: Why do so many people subject themselves to shows that burn them out emotionally?

Studies have uncovered a few viable possibilities. Some communication scholars have found evidence that downward social comparison is a motive to watch emotionally draining programming. For instance, I’ve found that I enjoy watching a stressful reality show about a polygamous man with 4 wives, because it makes me feel better about the stresses in my own life.

Other media research suggests that we seek out hard-to-watch shows because it makes us feel more competent and in control during emotionally difficult situations. On that note, our meta-emotional experiences, or the feelings we have about our feelings while watching, could explain why we are willing to spend our Sunday nights watching the main character on Breaking Bad, destroy his family and countless other lives during his metamorphosis from a likable high school chemistry teacher into a depraved meth kingpin. Watching the gritty drama makes us feel sad, anxious, or aghast, but in reflecting on our emotional reactions (which often seem appropriate) we may conclude that we are very in-touch, sympathetic, and humane. This feels good. This can even make the experience of watching a fictional portrayal of terrible events somewhat enjoyable.

But in what is perhaps the most promising line of research on the psychological paradox of why audiences would deliberately spend their relaxation time watching bleak tragedies like ‘Breaking Bad’, Zillmann’s intellectual progeny question the premise that feeling good is the only reason we watch entertaining television. We often associate words like ‘fun,’ ‘enjoyment,’ or ‘escape’ when we think about our entertainment. These are all hedonic, or pleasurable, rewards of watching TV. But the work of Mary Beth Oliver, a professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State University, has shown us that entertainment can offer more than enjoyment. In step with the positive psychology movement, Oliver and her colleagues have identified many eudaimonic rewards of watching depressing, stressful, or even horrific television. Eudaimonia is an experience that meaningfulness, insight, and emotions that put us in touch with our own humanity. Eudaimonia might not make us happy, but it can enrich us, leave us feeling fulfilled, touched, and perhaps even teach us something about ourselves.

So if the show’s track record is any indicator, the series finale for Breaking Bad will undoubtedly be long and painful. Masochistically, we will watch it, knowing we will probably feel even more distressed for the characters by the time the credits roll. But perhaps we can take some comfort in knowing that our agony isn’t necessarily in vain.

Photo: Courtesy AMC

Elizabeth L. Cohen About the Author: Dr. Elizabeth L. Cohen is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at West Virginia University. She researches the social and psychological effects of media and technology use and she recently taught an online course on multitasking with technology. Follow on Twitter @ElizabethCohen.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 10 Comments

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  1. 1. Mark David Fourman 5:40 pm 09/29/2013

    My take on this is that the motivation is that fear actually acts as an analgesic for other unpleasant emotions like sadness.

    “A dose of the fear-induced neurotransmitters delivered direct to our subconscious through a scary movie or twisted TV series plot is a great way to numb any emotional discomforts we might be feeling, or, even more-so, which we aren’t feeling and want to continue not feeling.” from “The Culture Of Fear” at http://theotherenlightenment.com/the-culture-of-fear/

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  2. 2. Owl905 6:12 pm 09/29/2013

    None of the above. It was all about the bathtub.

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  3. 3. popseal 10:35 pm 09/29/2013

    If a person is obsessed with something not important, it means that he should find interests other than his own self involvements. A few days at a charity center, volunteering at a nursing home, working an inner city shelter, you know, stuff that takes a bit of personal sacrifice rather than constant meditation on one’s belly button. The only thing a congressman ever said that was smart was a comment years ago describing TV as “a vast waste land”.

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  4. 4. string_beery 3:32 pm 09/30/2013

    at least one pretty obvious point not mentioned – it’s all fake, pretend, not real…and we all know it as we watch…i don’t happen to be in the meth business, but i’m pretty sure that if i experienced any of the drama this show portrayed, for real, that experience would be radically more “negative” than the experience of watching a television show…so it’s all about a vicarious, but safe, thrill…

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  5. 5. string_beery 7:57 pm 09/30/2013

    i really should have added…a brilliantly written and produced show…obviously, no small factor in our appreciation…

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  6. 6. M Tucker 1:52 pm 10/1/2013

    Meth kills and enslaves. Since I cannot identify with or wish the best for anyone who would be involved with that business I have been unable to emotionally care what happens to White. Episode 2 season 1 was the last one I watched. I wonder how many terminally ill cancer patients watched the show. I didn’t really hate the show and I do understand the draw of the antihero as a voyeuristic experience but I was unable to generate any kind of interest for a high school chemistry teacher who embarks on a career in meth production with one of his students to finance his medical costs due to cancer. Maybe a show about a teacher who recruits students to produce porn videos…Not sure if I would like it until the first or second show…just an idea…in keeping with the whole teacher becoming a pariah to society theme.

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  7. 7. lawhite 3:35 pm 10/2/2013

    I thought Aristotle founded the study of entertainment psychology as a field. Catharsis, anyone?

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  8. 8. Lucy12kempton 5:55 am 10/3/2013

    One of the most powerful and compelling TV shows i have watched. And what they have done so well is go out on a high and left people wanting more, unlike Dexter, where people felt obliged to watch the series finale as they have watched it for so long, it had run its course by series 6. Breaking Bad is the culmination of perfection.

    Came across a site in the UK which paid homage to the antics that went on in the caravan in the 1st couple seasons. For me the caravan was part of the Breaking Bad identity, so much happened around it from starting to cook meth in their, to it almost leading them to get caught. I liked what these guys did – http://www.coastinsurance.co.uk/2013/09/24/breaking-bad-caravan/

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  9. 9. MarkTauber 12:26 am 11/14/2013

    Catharsis — the purging emotions of fear and pity — are the engines at work in our emotional connection to these characters no less than they were with the Ancient Greeks who would not imagine slaying their father and marrying their mother but who nevertheless went to see the terrible fall of the noble Oedipus and thank cruel fate she did not weave for them such mortification and ignominy.

    But Breaking Bad examines one other philosophical question that some grapple with in reality and others vicariously. What does the limit experience, the experience of facing certain death give us license to do. For some, like the professor wrote the popular “Final Lecture” it awakens an appreciation for joy of living within our means, to truly relish the building blocks of our humanity. For others, it frees us from societal norms to do what we will, particularly if we feel wronged by social constructions that seem to belittle our unique atypicality. The French Resistance is a famous example. Once a resistant undertook to sabotage the Nazis there is no means or end excluded from their use as long as it contributes to the goal of liberation. The reason is that they have assumed the risk of torture and death at the hands of the oppressor. Once that existential decision is made, everything else follows logically. Once in, there is no such thing as a part-time resistant, or special associate status.

    In Breaking Bad, we find Walter White in a similarly morally ambiguous place at the beginning of the series. He has limited goals: get into criminal production, get out, and retire with enough money to achieve comfort for his family after his death. But once stepping into this underworld, he quickly learns to survive and then to master its bloodthirsty but manipulable players. This gives him not only the money he craves, but the sense of mastery over a difficult, multi-faceted business situation that he hasn’t felt since his former colleagues created Grey Matter and cashed in on many of his innovations. Of course, mastery in crime requires that you ante up with your life. But he does, and becomes smarter, tougher, and always one step ahead of the lesser brutes who dog him. And he revels in it. Until his one fatal flaw — hubris — does him in. And yet, even in death, he serves the family (and society) he loves by eliminating every last trace of the meth trade by the time he boards Charon’s board for the Underworld. A very satisfying end that I’m sure Aeschylus and Euripidies would cheer — after a good, cathartic cry.

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  10. 10. Uncle.Al 10:44 pm 12/28/2013

    “Each excruciating, emotionally taxing episode made me feel like I was walking on shards of glass.” Were you giggles in organic lab? Did you catalyze the benzoin condensation with grams of potassium cyanide in ethanol over a Bunsen burner, or was it thiamine and a hair dryer to make a TLC spot as your product? “eudaimonic rewards” If you’re feeling clean and wholesome, science has the cure,

    http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/ananda.htm

    Walter was really into those 7 cm long crystals. Benzophenone in iso-propanol in Pyrex, drop of HOAc, expose to direct sunlight for a week (or five, it’s winter). They’re chunky crystals, big and clear and wonderful. Why do you so prattle on about Walter? “Marche ou crève.”

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