Why Some People Enjoy Watching Pimple Popping Videos

New neuroscience study sheds light on a controversial internet video trend.

Posted Jan 14, 2021

One of the most controversial recent internet trends is watching so-called “pimple popping” videos. In these video clips, the treatment of various skin impurities such as pimples, whiteheads, blackheads, and cysts is shown in full detail. While many people react to these videos with disgust, some of them have been viewed more than 10 million times. Surprisingly, many viewers also leave positive comments about such videos, indicating, for example, how satisfying it was to watch them. Why some people enjoy watching things that are clearly disgusting is a psychological phenomenon that is not well understood.

A new neuroscientific study focused on investigating what happens in the brain while people watch pimple popping videos tried to shed light on this puzzling observation. The study, just published in the scientific journal Behavioural Brain Research (Wabnegger et al., 2021), used a neuroscientific technique called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). The brains of 80 women were scanned using an MRI scanner while the women watched three different kinds of videos: pimple popping videos, water fountain videos, and steam cleaning videos. Importantly, there were two groups of participants: Women who enjoyed watching pimple popping videos and women who did not. In addition to watching the videos in the MRI scanner, the participants also filled out some questionnaires regarding their emotions in general and their feelings about pimple popping videos specifically.

The questionnaire data revealed that women who enjoyed watching pimple popping videos were less easily disgusted than the other group. The analysis of the neuroimaging data revealed that those women showed increased brain activation in the so-called frontopolar cortex area of the brain while watching pimple popping videos compared to the other group. This brain area is involved in coding action intentions and predicting the outcomes of motor decisions. The scientists suggest that it is highly relevant in watching pimple popping videos as these videos start with an untreated pimple. People watching these videos expect the moment when pressure is applied to the pimple so that it opens and is emptied.

In contrast to the group that enjoyed watching pimple popping videos, the group that did not showed a deactivation of the nucleus accumbens. This brain area is involved in experiencing pleasure, but also in avoiding non-pleasurable events. Deactivation of this brain area has commonly been associated with a disgust reaction. Thus, there seems to be a stronger disgust reaction in this group than in the women who enjoyed watching the videos.

Based on their findings, the scientists suggested two different mechanisms for why some people enjoy watching pimple popping videos while other people find it disgusting:

1.     Differences in the ability to regulate disgust: Disgust is an emotion that helps us to stay away from things that pose a danger to our health since they could lead to poisoning (such as rotten food) or infection (such as a festering wound). While a pimple popping video is disgusting, it does not pose a real threat to the health of the people watching it, just like somebody watching a horror movie is not in danger of getting murdered. People who enjoy watching pimple popping videos may have a better ability to adjust their disgust reaction when watching an (actually harmless) video than those who are disgusted by it. This might be similar to the observation that some people enjoy watching brutal horror movies while others get a strong anxiety reaction from such movies.

2.     High curiosity for negative content: Earlier studies have shown that watching negative content can activate the brain’s reward system in some people, in the sense of a “morbid curiosity.” People who enjoy watching pimple popping videos might show a stronger morbid curiosity than other who do not.

References

Wabnegger A, Höfler C, Zussner T, Freudenthaler HH, Schienle A. Enjoyment of watching pimple popping videos: an fMRI investigation. Behav Brain Res. 2021 Jan 7:113129.