This Is How Netflix Influences Your Binge-Watching Choices Without Saying A Single Word

#SpoilerAlert: It's all about the pictures.

If you’ve ever wondered why you decided to spend your weekend glued to one Netflix show over another, the streaming service has some picturesque answers.

Netflix already knows a ton about its members watching practices from how much, to how often, to how many people have convinced you to share your log-in information. 

Over the past two years, Netflix has further added to its plethora of consumer data by conducting research studies about what site aspects influence its members' viewing habits. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it found that artwork "was not only the biggest influencer to a member's decision to watch content, but it also constituted over 82% of their focus while browsing Netflix." 

Apparently, people don't go on Netflix to read. Who knew?

From its study, the company learned it must capture a member's attention within 90 seconds or they'll lose interest and move on to a different activity. Because the human brain can process an image in as little as 13 milliseconds, users spend an average of only 1.8 seconds considering each Netflix title. 

Because "a picture's worth a thousand words" — and nobody was reading the series summaries anyway — Netflix learned that its images are the most efficient and compelling way to lure you down the rabbit hole.

Netflix has since implemented a system that tests a set of images for many of its titles. Those tests highlighted four ways we gather decision-making information from and respond to images:

1. Humans respond to emotions, but not all emotions are created equal.

According to Netflix's research, "humans are hard-wired to respond to faces," no matter the medium. But some facial expressions tend to elicit stronger responses than others. When Netflix tested this theory with its original sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, faces with complex emotions drove the most engagement, outperforming "stoic or benign expressions." 

Basically, when people see a character that is emotionally invested in their story, they become more invested, too. Netflix attributes this to "the fact that complex emotions convey a wealth of information to members regarding the tone or feel of the content." 

The green arrow denotes the "winning" image. 
The green arrow denotes the "winning" image.  Netflix

2. It's all about location, location, location (even for a digital delivery service).

Though one of the best things about Netflix is its ability to serve members all over the world, it found that regional differences not only still exist but can play important roles for some titles and images. For example, Sense8, "a Netflix series in which eight people can telepathically experience each other's lives," has many international actors and storylines, which allows it to resonate with many different types of people. 

The winning image of the show's artwork test reflected that desire for diversity. Overall, Netflix noticed that while great psychological stories transcend physical borders, they still needed to consider how best to present each story in different regions. It is important to understand how presenting each story in different regions impacts how quickly members from around the world actually discover that story through artwork.

3. The character you love to hate is also the one you love to see.

It's no surprise that consumers responded positively to recognizable characters, but Netflix found that images featuring villains did surprisingly well in both kids and action genres. 

A polarizing character often elicits a more visceral reaction from a viewer, which may explain this trend. For example, nice guys finished last in the image tests for Dragons: Race to the Edge:

4. One may be the loneliest number, but it’s also the most visually appealing.

One of Netflix's first discoveries was that an image's "tendency to win dramatically dropped when it contained more than three people." So if you're wondering why the cover image for Orange is the New Black has — despite its large and talented cast — only featured Piper the past two seasons, you only have yourself to blame. (Kidding!) 

Netflix acknowledges that while this may seem counterintuitive for shows whose popularity comes from its wide range of characters, it simply comes down to size limitations. "While ensemble casts are fantastic for a huge billboard on the side of a highway," Nick Nelson wrote on the company's blog, "they are too complex at small sizes and ultimately, not as effective at helping our members decide if the title is right for them on smaller screens."

Does Netflix know what you want better than you do? Maybe not, but it's definitely spent more time and resources trying to figure out what you're going to do after you finish rewatching "Friends" — for the 20th time.

Cover image via Relatably