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Does anyone still watch mukbangs*? The video trend that exploded during the pandemic? Where people engorged themselves of outrageous amounts of (junk) food on camera, describing every detail of their sensory experience?
I starred mukbang, because I was referring to the Americanization of the originally Korean concept, which simply means “an eating broadcast.” The core intention is quite sweet: lonely people get to virtually eat with others, as togetherness around meals is arguably a beyond culture, human desire.
That said, I did not know the origin story when I first encountered what this word meant two years ago. I only saw ridiculous quantities of greasy fast food, overly enthusiastic assertions of deliciousness, and an abhorrent melting pot of slurping, swallowing chewing, crunching (admittedly… the crunching was pretty nice) and loud moaning.
I was very uncomfortable, and I am not one to feel that emotion often. I prefer to embarrass than to be embarrassed if I have to pick.
But hey, some of you all obviously like it — like I said, I was a bit convinced by the crunching — and by this point, many have theorized why that may be the case. Food is a core desire in Maslow’s hierarchy of need, so watching so much food security is satisfying. The presentation may play another role; food is colorful and aesthetic. And we like pretty things. Watching this can also attenuate cravings — or create some — because it is comforting to imagine what those sensory experiences would be like.
As student of psychology, I realized that I understood the desire to watch it, just not the manner in which it is shown (think about the slurping again).
There’s a pivotal psychology study that painted humans in a meh light — they arguably all do — and concluded that we’re basically sheep. It is commonly called the “Smoke filled room” experiment. Basically, three people are filling out a form on their own in a room, quietly. Two are decoys, one is the actual test subject. The room begins to gently fill with smoke. The test subject is then challenged: they notice the smoke, will they alert their classmates who seem unbothered?
I’ll save you the details: most people will wait an embarrassingly long time before stating that something is wrong, if they ever do. This is because people take cues from other people as to what to do.
But even more so, people take cues from other people as to how to feel. You may have seen that contrary to our hatred of them, laugh tracks actually increases people’s likelihood to laugh at a video, as well as change our understanding of the scene. In a 2015 study by Rhodes & Ellithorpe, 112 participants viewed a clip of reckless driving. Half saw the clip with a laugh track, while the other half did not. Results showed that people were indeed influenced by the laugh track, as it communicated how the viewer should interpret what they were shown.
We mirror what we’re primed to do, or in less psychological terms, we replicate what we believe to be expected/shown to do.
In consuming media of food overindulgence, we are more likely to liken our reactions to that of the host, even if our unbiased reaction would be otherwise. If they are describing how amazing the food is, and making all kinds of affirming noises to support the claim, who are we to disbelieve them? Clearly the food must be good.
Now, as to why some people will not like it… that’s a larger conversation. The above study did mention that identifying with the person that we are watching does have an impact, as well as personal experiences with the action. So, the host and our experiences with the type of food matters. You may like watching the pizza videos, because you also like pizza. But cheese fries gave you indigestion three years ago so you are automatically turned off by it. Some people just have misophonia, which is a heightened sensitivity to specific noises including mouth ones.
However, this is just a hypothesis, based on my knowledge of psychology. It would be interesting to find out if the current emphasis on mouth noises has an affect on our perception of the food. If not, it would definitely redefine the modern cooking show that is always assuring you that the dish you cannot taste is absolutely incredible. Until then, if hearing the destruction of potato chips between teeth or blowing on pea soup scratches the itch, go for it.