The Psychology of Comfort Movies
An explanation to why our brains find particular movies endlessly rewatchable.
Written by: Samra Karamustafic
Picture this: you’ve just had an incredibly busy (and not-so-good) day, and all you’re looking forward to is a night in with your TV and some takeout. You feel like watching a movie tonight, but you’re not exactly sure which one to watch. You begin flipping through the seemingly endless list of movies on your favorite streaming services when you see a new action flick that looks promising, but you’re just not in the mood to watch it tonight. On the other hand, there’s that new thriller that your friend has been raving about for weeks, and it’s finally on Netflix…yeah, it’s still a no.
Suddenly, you stumble upon the movie that you just know you’ll be watching tonight — even if you’ve already seen it 20 times and know it by heart by now — because you simply need some cheering up.
It’s a movie that we all know and love, and one that we’ll never get tired of: Our comfort movie!
Now you might be wondering, “What on Earth is a ‘comfort movie,’ exactly?”
While an entry for the phrase may not be in any official dictionary, you can certainly find it on another highly trustworthy and dependable source: Urban Dictionary. According to the Urban Dictionary, a comfort movie is “a movie that one watches to feel less s*** and a movie that evokes many positive and lovely feelings.”
So does that mean that a comfort movie must hold a certain degree of comedy and lightheartedness, or follow a set of rules, in order to be considered a true comfort film? Not at all!
It also comes as no surprise that the concept of comfort movies has spiked in popularity over the last two years, conveniently coinciding with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In their piece “Top 10 Comfort Films,” the Los Angeles Times emphasizes the individualized nature of a comfort movie, writing that they are “memory movies, tied to a time in your life, or a place, or a person.”
So, while someone’s comfort movie may be what is considered a “classic” feel-good film — like “When Harry Met Sally,” for instance — somebody else may consider a horror movie like “Halloween” their favorite comfort movie all the same.
Has the idea of a comfort movie always been around, or is this a newer concept? While the phrase was added to Urban Dictionary in 2011 and the LA Times piece was published in 2014, no one knows for sure when the phrase “comfort movie” first came into use.
In fact, the pandemic plays an important role when we take a look at the psychological aspects of comfort movies...
Nonetheless, the phrase has certainly cropped up in all corners of the internet over the recent years — whether that be a Twitter thread of someone’s favorite comfort movies or a curated list of the top 52 comfort films from The Guardian. It also comes as no surprise that the concept of comfort movies has spiked in popularity over the last two years, conveniently coinciding with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — a time in which we were all looking for any bit of comfort we could get from home.
In fact, the pandemic plays an important role when we take a look at the psychological aspects of comfort movies. We’ve collectively had to face a lot of difficult decisions and changes in our daily lives over these past two years, all of which have increased our cognitive load tenfold. Cognitive load (also referred to as cognitive load theory), as defined by the BBC, views the mind as an information processing system. Essentially, we depend on our working memory — which is a limited resource — whenever we tackle a new problem or face a decision to make. To say that we’ve all overloaded our working memory since March 2020 would be an understatement, but this gives us an explanation as to why so many of us revert to rewatching our favorite movies on a night in.
Watching a new movie takes a lot of mental work, even if it may not seem like it would.
Watching a new movie takes a lot of mental work, even if it may not seem like it would. For starters, you have to find a new movie that piques your interest enough for you to watch at that very moment — and we all know how much of an ordeal this can be. After flipping through possibly every movie on your preferred streaming platform and pressing play, you have to take the time to get to know the characters, keep track of the storyline, and prepare yourself for any unexpected plot twists. But, as Psychology Today notes, “there’s no guesswork, cliffhangers, or stressful anticipation when watching an old favorite — which makes it easier for our tired, overloaded brains to process.”
But, won’t there come a certain point where our brains will just get sick and tired of rewatching the same characters and unforeseeable (but at this point, totally foreseeable) plot twists? Psychology says that, for the most part, not really — and that’s because of a phenomenon called “the mere exposure effect.”
Familiar things are easier for us humans to process...
As The Decision Lab explains, the mere exposure effect (also known as the familiarity principle) “describes our tendency to develop preferences for things simply because we are familiar with them.” It’s why we like frequenting the same coffee shops and restaurants, while also ordering our usual latte or entree after promising ourselves that we’d try something new this time. Familiar things are easier for us humans to process, and as Dr. Fayard writes for Psychology Today, “When something is easy to process, it tends to make us feel positive emotions, which in turn make us like the object more.”
So, the next time you find yourself feeling bad for watching the same movie yet again, don’t! Revel in the experience, acknowledge that you’re doing yourself a favor by giving your mind a break and indulging in the nostalgia, and just know that, in the end, you’re probably watching a good movie anyway. It’s called self-care.