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This episode is brought to you by the Music for Scientists album! Stream the album on major music services here: Check out the “For Your Love" music video here:

Objectively, some shows end with rough final acts, but we are finding that this isn’t the only factor in our discontent. Unsatisfactory finales also reflect common types of relationships we build with fictional characters.

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This episode is brought to you by The Music For Scientists album.

Click the link in the description to learn more. [♪ INTRO]. It was a refrain heard across the internet: “Game of Thrones was so good.

Until that last season.” Or How I Met Your Mother, until that last episode. Or pick any number of examples! There have just been so many times where a bad ending feels like it ruins the whole series.

And it’s not just because you’re angry at the writers: There’s actually some psychology there. Now, some of the explanation is pretty intuitive: Ending a relationship is hard, even if it’s not a bad ending. And that’s essentially what’s going on here.

When you really get into a TV show, book, or YouTuber, you might develop what psychologists call a parasocial relationship. It's a one-sided relationship with fictional characters or celebrities that you treat kind of like the real thing.  These kinds of relationships can fulfill real social needs, in what's called social surrogacy. Like, we normally turn to our friends or family if we feel lonely or rejected.

But watching a favorite TV show, or even just thinking about TV characters you like can also fill those needs, and studies have demonstrated that. On the flip side, though, having parasocial relationships can also put you at risk for experiencing some real pain and sorrow. Like, after one protagonist in the TV show Game of Thrones died, (we won't say which one) researchers looked at a sample of nearly a thousand tweets talking about it.

And 93% of them fit into one of the stages of the Kubler-Ross grief model.   That's a model therapists often use to describe a series of common reactions people have after the death of a loved one, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And the responses on Twitter even reflected some of the typical timing of each of those stages of grief. For example, depression reached its highest frequency in the middle of the sample period then dropped off, and acceptance was at its highest at the end.

This wasn’t an isolated incident, either. After a character on the TV show House died, researchers studying online message boards found similar reactions. And even back when the TV show Friends ended, surveys of college students showed that those who felt a strong relationship to the characters reported feeling loneliness and distress in their absence.

It was almost like a real breakup! Now, not everyone experiences this to the same extent. But what’s clear from these studies is that we can form real relationships with fictional characters.

And when they go away, the hurt can be real, too. So, you might have some hard feelings surrounding the end of a show, no matter how good or bad it was. But a bad series finale can be especially painful.

That has to do with a psychological phenomenon known as the peak-end rule. This rule describes the fact that there are two parts of experiences we remember better than others: the most intense moments… and the endings. And this is true for all sorts of experiences.

Like, it’s why one rainy day at the beach can cast a shadow on your whole vacation, or an unpleasant commute home can color your entire day.  Researchers aren’t sure why our brains do this, but one hypothesis is that the peaks and endpoints sort of frame the experience, so we can remember how much emotional effort it would take to go through that again.  All this means that a bad ending can loom larger than the rest of the show to begin with. But recalling that ending can also make matters worse. That’s because, when we recall these memories, we don’t just play them back neutrally.

Our brain reacts to our memories as we recall them, to remind us whether or not it’s an experience we want to repeat. In particular, one key part of the brain that gets involved is the insula. The insula sits deep in the brain, and it activates when you’re recalling something that was rewarding at first, but then turned a little sour over time.  So, to use a non-TV example, say you’re remembering the first time you ate shrimp.

Maybe at first it seemed great… but then your lips started to puff up because apparently you’re allergic, and you regretted ever trying it.  The next time you come across that food and remember your last encounter with it, the insula will activate to remind you how the last time went. And the same is true for consuming media. Researchers think the insula helps produce these gut feelings to keep us away from the types of experiences or situations that have hurt us in the past.

And for some of us, that response to our memory can influence our feelings even more than the original event. So if you hear “Game of Thrones” and can’t help but think of how much you hated the last season, that could be your insula trying to remind you how the series hurt you so you don’t rewatch it and get betrayed again. Especially because, if you’ve already developed a bond with its characters, that betrayal could feel pretty strong.  But as frustrating as it is that our brains paint bad fictional endings as almost personal betrayals, it’s ultimately because they’re just looking out for us.

In media, a dramatic scene or event can be the inspiration for an incredible soundtrack. And that’s true of science, too! That’s actually the heart behind the album Music for Scientists.

It’s a tribute to those who’ve dedicated their lives to science-driven work, and was inspired by the knowable wonders of the universe around us. It’s a project by Patrick Olsen that celebrates scientific contributions to society through experimentation and a commitment to truth. If that sounds like your jam, you can find the link to the music video “For Your Love” below or stream the album on all major music services. [♪ OUTRO].