What Is The Psychology Of Mukbang Watching?

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Watching people consume food online can make you feel more content and relaxed. By providing you with social connection and the chance to temporarily escape the hurdles of everyday life, it is no surprise that “mukbang” has become such a sensation over the years.

While mukbang has been around for over a decade, in recent years there has been a surge in its popularity. Youtubers like Zach Choi and Peggie Neo have used their mukbang channel to amass billions of views and millions of subscribers; this genre of YouTube video is common among Kpop idols. In fact, many mukbang videos surpass 100 million views.

So, what is it about mukbang—watching other people gorge on obscene amounts of food—that is so appealing for our attention?


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What Exactly Is Mukbang?

For those not familiar with this corner of the internet, a mukbang is a live-streaming video involving the host consuming food for an audience. The term originates from the Korean word 먹방 (meokbang), a combination of two other Korean words: 먹는 (meongneun or eating) and 방송 (bangsong or broadcast).

A typical mukbang video could involve the individual, also known as a ‘mukbanger’, cooking and then subsequently consuming food. While some mukbangers prefer to cook, others order in with the common intention of consuming the food live on camera.

YouTube video showing mukbanger cook and consume creamy chicken fettuccine alfredo.

If you ever come across these videos on YouTube, a common feature you may notice is the mukbanger eating copious amounts of food. the majority of mukbang videos involve the host binge-eating loads of food. However, this is not the defining feature of a mukbang. In fact, mukbangers can exercise a lot of autonomy when creating their videos.

So, what are the various kinds of mukbang videos that exist out there?

There are a plethora of different kinds of mukbang videos, including ASMR, collaboration and storytelling mukbangs.

Also Read: Why Do We Like Horror Movies?

What Makes Them Such A Sensation? 

It’s obvious to wonder why a video of someone doing something as ordinary as eating amass so many views, but there is a psychological explanation for this phenomenon.

In a review of literature, researchers at the Nottingham Trent University examined the psychology behind the popularity of mukbang videos. They found a whole host of reasons, from providing entertainment and an escape from real life to more serious reasons, such as helping to compensate for social needs.

Entertainment Reasons

Mukbangs can be highly entertaining. While eating, creators share stories and tell jokes, but for many viewers, even the sounds and sights of eating are pleasurable.

ASMR mukbangs that emphasize sounds like sizzling food, chewing, slurping, and mixing are rewarding to watch.  This visual and auditory stimuli create static-like tingling sensations that may be explained by endorphins. These are a group of hormones released by the brain after receiving stimuli perceived as safe and trustworthy. These hormones can in turn trigger the release of dopamine and oxytocin.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with desire and motivation. It enables one to focus on those things in life that trigger the release of endorphins. Indeed, dopamine is the culprit behind your motivation to get up and go for that morning jog.
Oxytocin is also known as the ‘love drug’ or ‘bonding hormone’. It is typically released between individuals who share close bonds. Some examples of these bonds could be romantic partners or parents and their infants. The release of this hormone leads to elevated contentment, trust, and reduced levels of fear.

The molecular structures of dopamine and Oxytocin (Credits: Zerbor/Shutterstock and Rueangwit/Shutterstock)

Eating Vicariously

Did you know that mukbang-watching could also satisfy some of your hunger pangs?

It may sound crazy, but research shows otherwise. According to a study, viewers have far fewer cravings to eat pizza or M&Ms after watching someone else eat that food on video. This has been called vicarious eating.

Escapism

A mukbang video might even help alleviate the stress many individuals experience during their fast-paced life. Furthermore, it can help viewers escape from feelings of guilt and stress associated with being overweight. Many youngsters watch mukbang to escape the unpleasant reality of not being able to order their favorite foods while their parents are at work.

Social Reasons

The internet is more than just a place for entertainment. For many, it provides something they crave from their daily lives, but might be missing from their “offline” lives. With social media, the internet and its wealth of content can help people find community.

In psychological literature, is is called the “compensatory internet use model”. It states that individuals who have unattained offline needs can use online media to compensate for the lack.

The style of Mukbang videos may also encourage a form of online intimacy. Viewers often experience an emotional connection and empathy towards mukbangers. In one video, for instance, a leading mukbanger manages to foster a sense of connection amongst retired veterans while eating food in a room surrounded with army paraphernalia (battle figures and toy rifles). This helps compensate for feelings of loneliness, satisfying, if momentarily, one’s social needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory with the need for love and belonging, stressing the importance of social connections (Credit: Plateresca/Shutterstock)

The importance of connection is epitomized by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model. In psychology, this model depicts human needs as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. The needs positioned lower in the hierarchy are more primal and must be satisfied before the higher and more complex needs can be satisfied. Within Maslow’s model, the need for love and belonging highlights the importance of social connections.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, there seem to exist a multitude of reasons that motivate people to watch mukbang. Which reason resonates the most with you?

Also Read: Is Binge Watching TV Good Or Bad For You?

Next time you see your peers watching endless hours of this seemingly simple phenomena, don’t be shocked! Through combating loneliness, providing a sense of belonging, eliciting pleasant sensations, or just enabling escapism, mukbang can provide your mind, body and soul with a reward it desperately needs!

References (click to expand)
  1. GL Poerio. (2018) Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is ....
  2. EK Kang. (2020) Content analysis of “mukbang” YouTube videos, media ....
  3. Taormina, R. J., & Gao, J. H. (2013, July 1). Maslow and the Motivation Hierarchy: Measuring Satisfaction of the Needs. The American Journal of Psychology. University of Illinois Press.
  4. Kircaburun, K., Harris, A., Calado, F., & Griffiths, M. D. (2020, January 6). The Psychology of Mukbang Watching: A Scoping Review of the Academic and Non-academic Literature. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Springer Science and Business Media LLC.
  5. Kardefelt-Winther, D. (2014, February). A conceptual and methodological critique of internet addiction research: Towards a model of compensatory internet use. Computers in Human Behavior. Elsevier BV.
  6. International Journal of Business and Management.
About the Author

Shreya is a biological science graduate (Master of Science) from Johns Hopkins University. In addition to sharing an interest in biology, she truly enjoys studying psychology. For this reason, she likes to spend her free time watching thrilling psychological documentaries on Netflix. Being a hardcore dog-lover, she also loves pampering her four pet dogs.

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