What Netflix Can Teach Us About the Paradox of Choice

Today’s dizzying number of options might just be making us miserable

Ryan Anderson

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Credit: kevinjeon00/Getty Images

II have been rather disappointed with Netflix lately. After it delisted a few of my favorite shows (ahem, Doctor Who) and I spent a few weeks struggling to find anything good to watch, I started wondering if the Netflix overlords had adjusted their strategy. Maybe they were hoping to appease a wider variety of tastes by offering more lower-quality content.

As someone looking for ways to apply data science to everyday life, I decided to look at some patterns to test this hunch. While my hypothesis was somewhat wrong, what I discovered gave me some surprising insight into the psychology of choice.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to obtain data of all the externally produced shows Netflix offered, year by year. However, this information is available on Wikipedia for Netflix originals, and the show ratings are available from IMDb. So I focused my analysis on these original shows, looking first at the average rating for each one.

We have to take mental responsibility for what we choose, instead of simply blaming Hollywood for churning out crappy content.

Those numbers tell a sad story. When Netflix launched its first show in 2013, it started out with a bang: There was just one option, but it was a good show, with a rating of 8. Now, the average show clocks in at 6.8 — perhaps good enough to watch if you scroll past it, but certainly not worth seeking out, given the amount of outstanding content out there.

But this graph doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, it’s misleading. If we look at the rating for each individual show, we see that the number of quality Netflix original offerings is actually increasing. You just have to sift through Netflix’s suboptimal recommendations algorithm to find them. Just last year, we saw the debut of six new shows that now have a rating over 9.

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Ryan Anderson

Professional Data Scientist | MBA. I offer consulting: My passion is to use DS/ML/AI/IA to help us be better humans. ryanandersonds.com / Bluesky: ryands