The Why #9: Why can’t I resist the Netflix ‘next episode’ countdown?

By Dan Monheit, 6.11.20

Question submitted by Emily, North Adelaide

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There are some convincing lies we tell ourselves; ‘we’ll work it off at the gym tomorrow’, ‘just one more pair’ and ‘we’ve got to spend to save’.

But none of these come close to the mid-binge allure of ‘just one more episode’ when we’re watching Netflix.

Despite a big presentation the following morning, chronic sleep deprivation, three years worth of overdue tax returns to get to and a show that, quite honestly, isn’t even that good (I’m looking at you Emily in Paris), the ‘next episode starting in 5, 4, 3’ is the closest thing we have to modern day witchcraft.

Strangely, we regularly surrender in the moment, while being acutely aware of the future self-loathing it will bring. It’s the same when we order the dessert that we know we don’t need, or splash out on an Uber Black when the bus is 30 seconds away and much lighter on the wallet.

Why oh why does Today Emily, frequently, consistently, knowingly and gleefully, raise her two middle fingers at Tomorrow Emily?

Temporal Discounting

Because Today Emily is dealing with Temporal Discounting — our tendency to reduce the value of things that are further into the future, while overvaluing things in the here and now.

The more distant and hazier a future benefit is (eg a comfortable retirement), the more rapidly we discount it, making it easier to trade for things that bring us happiness in the here and now (eg new sneakers).

Research into online grocery shopping by the aptly named Milkman, Rogers & Bazerman (2009) identified a striking correlation between basket healthiness and order delivery dates.

When orders were made with a delivery date of a week out or more, the baskets were far more likely to contain enough fresh fruit, leafy greens and healthy bits and pieces to make even the most discerning mother proud (well played Tomorrow Emily!).

However, as the delivery dates edged closer and closer to ‘now’, ‘Today Emily’ took over, switching out healthy items for ice cream, chocolates and other indulgent ‘sometimes foods’ with reckless abandon.

Unfortunately, this research confirms something we’ve all long suspected: our best long term intentions are usually no match for the thrill of short term gratification, especially when the short term gratification is starting in 5, 4, 3…

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The takeaway for brands with products and services that meet a short term need, is to go ‘pedal to the metal’ on instant gratification, confident in the knowledge that we’re hardwired to think this way. For those who satisfy longer-term needs, look for (or create) short term, interim hooks, goals or benefits that help scratch the immediate itch ‘Today Us’ is craving.

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Bad Decisions Podcast
Learn more about Temporal Discounting and how brands can use it on episode 8 of the Bad Decisions Podcast.

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