Ten years ago, the term “popping” was nothing more than a harmless verb which referred to making a soft explosive sound. Today, innocently typing “popping” into YouTube will lead to a plethora of videos featuring various extractions of pus and bodily fluids from large blackheads, pimples, and of course, cysts. Popping has truly become a cultural phenomenon with millions of fans worldwide. A big reason, however, for the strange popularity of watching other people pop pimples may be rooted in the innate feelings videos elicit.
The Science Of Disgust
Whether you would rather go blind than have to watch someone pop a cyst or you’ve bookmarked your favorite pimple-popping clips, you can agree on one thing: Popping is pretty gross. But it’s this exact factor that makes it so irresistible to some. In an interview with Salon, Daniel Kelly, author of the book Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust, explained that repulsion is a trait that humans evolved to keep themselves safe from the dangers of contagious disease or infection.
“Disgust is a psychological component to this arsenal of protective weaponry,” Kelly said. “Instead of waiting until something gets into our system that we have to fight to push out, disgust helps us to stay away from objects and people that are likely to get us sick.”
Our ever present instinct to avoid things that disgust means that as a society we’ve devised a way to shield ourselves from common sources of disgust: morgues to deal the dead, hospitals to deal with the sick, sewage and sanitation to deal with waste and garbage. As a result, the instances where we will feel genuine disgust are few and far between. According to Kelly, it’s this desensitization which has allowed the rare, disgusting footage or experience to truly capture our attention.
Danger With The Benefit Of Safety
Another reason for the obsession with pimple-popping videos has more to do with the thrill of the footage rather than the disgust factor. The Guardian reported that, according to many “popping” fans, the videos give them a sort of rush without the fear of danger, sort of like riding a roller coaster. Nina Strohminger, author of The Hedonics of Disgust, explained the psychology of this feeling to Cosmopolitan.
“Rather, negative sensations are interesting, particularly when you're in a context where they can't hurt you,” she said. “You're probably not going to step in dog shit just for the experience, but maybe you'd click on a link to watch someone else doing it.”
This thrill from watching a candy-coated depiction of gore may be why movies such as Saw and The Human Centipede have such a huge following, since they take gore to the extreme.
For others, it’s not that the footage is gross and exciting, but rather that it's strangely soothing. According to Dr. Sandra Lee, a somewhat-celebrity in the world of popping whose YouTube page has nearly 144,000 followers, many of her fans find watching videos of her extract pimples and cysts quite soothing. Some even watch the videos to help them fall asleep at night. The combination of Lee’s soothing voice along with the satisfaction of relieving pressure creates a physical sensation of pleasure in some viewers.
Lee explained that many of her watchers report an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), which is a pleasurable tingling sensation experienced by some in response to certain sights, sounds, and smells — or put more bluntly, an “orgasm of the brain.” Other experiences that may bring about such a sensation are soft whispering, the sound of light tapping, or the brushing of hair, The Washington Post reported.
“I agree that there is something hypnotic about pimple popping,” Lee told The Guardian via email. “Sometimes when I upload my own videos I find myself watching certain parts over and over.”
So whether the love for watching these videos stems from a desire to be disgusted, the thrill of danger with a safety net, or the soothing sensation of ASMR, it seems pretty clear that there’s no apparent harm in watching these videos. Even for those whose love for watching pimples pop borders obsession, the footage appears to be therapeutic.
Dermatillomania, also known as skin picking disorder, is a mental condition where individuals will repetitively pick at their own skin to the point of causing damage. It’s a form of obsessive compulsive disorder and included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, rather than help to facilitate the condition, Lee believes that “popping” videos may help to relieve it.
"I do know that it helps some of my viewers cope with their dermatillomania," she said. "I have a few patients with this condition, and when I see one again, I plan to suggest that they watch my videos and let me know if it helps them cope."