inquiring minds

Why Is Popping Bubble Wrap So Satisfying?

Photo: Corbis

Recently, the manufacturers of Bubble Wrap, the alarmingly addictive packaging that was apparently a brand name all along, announced that they would be redesigning their product. The new version — the horror — will not pop. As Jaime Fuller notes on Daily Intelligencer, the newly imagined product will be called iBubble Wrap, “its Rice Krispies-esque melodies replaced by bubbles that transfer air between one another so they never deflate.” 

This raises an important question: What, exactly, was ever so satisfying about popping Bubble Wrap, anyway? As it happens, Kathleen M. Dillon, now psychology professor emerita at Western New England College, published a study in the journal Psychological Reports back in the early 1990s investigating this.

A relatively light topic for scientific investigation, to be sure, but in her write-up, Dillon defends her inquiry with some surprising heft, quoting a 1970s tome about the calming powers of touch: “In ancient Greece it was customary, and is still in so much of Asia, to carry a smooth-surfaced stone, or amber, or jade, sometimes called a ‘fingering piece.’ Such a ‘worrybead,’ as it is also named, by its pleasant feel, serves to produce a calming effect. The telling of beads by religious Catholics seems to produce a similar result.” Dillon adds that keeping your hands busy with little projects like needlework is considered relaxing, and suggests that attacking a sheet of Bubble Wrap might work in the same way. 

And indeed, Dillon’s research did show that undergraduates who got to pop two sheets of Bubble Wrap felt at once calmer and more awake after they were done than before they’d started; they also reported higher levels of calmness and alertness than a group that was not granted popping privileges. Borrowing from the theories of Robert E. Thayer, a psychologist who studied biological explanations for moods, she speculates that it has to do with a very natural, human response to stress: freezing in your tracks. In real danger, this might be helpful, because it gives you a moment to decide what to action to take — better to fight back or flee? A similar thing might happen when people are nervous or stressed, and so it could be that little nervous motions like finger tapping or foot jiggling — or Bubble Wrap popping! — are ways of releasing that muscle tension, which helps reduce the feeling of stress.

Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s just that those little pops are really, really fun to hear. “It’s compulsive,” Dillon once told the New York Times. “I’ve seen secretaries fighting for it — Give me that. It’s obviously something that’s desirable and addictive at some level.”

Why Is Popping Bubble Wrap So Satisfying?