One of my favorite things in the world to do is trick my husband into watching gross-out videos on YouTube. The man has a gag reflex so sensitive he can’t tolerate any talk of germs or bodily fluids, and yet he falls for the same routine again and again — I’ll barge into his office, shove my iPhone under his nose, and say, “You have to see this video.” For some reason, he always assumes that my intentions are pure, and that the video I want to show him is something harmless, like Carpool Karaoke. When he realizes that what I’m showing him is actually a surgeon draining pus or a dentist squeezing out a tonsil stone, the blood drains completely out of his face, and he reels backward in his chair like I’ve dropped a cobra in his lap.
“Seriously, what is wrong with you?” he’s yelled — on more than one occasion — as I cackle gleefully. “That’s sick! How can you possibly watch that?”
Truthfully, I could watch it all day — and I’m not the only one. Last year, the Cut profiled California-based dermatologist Sandra Lee, otherwise known as “Dr. Pimple Popper,” who’s filled her popular YouTube and Instagram accounts with videos of comedone extractions, cyst ruptures, lipoma removals, and much more. Today, she has an online fan base of more than 3 million YouTube subscribers, many of them clamoring for more gruesome videos.
But the phenomenon is much bigger than Lee and her fans. The popular subreddit /popping boasts more than 100,000 subscribers who post “amateur” popping videos of every secretion imaginable: cysts and blackheads, yes, but also MRSA drainings, ingrown hair and earwax extractions, blister popping, tonsil-stone removals, and more. There’s a bona fide movement of people who like to watch things ooze out of other things.
But according to my husband, the question remains: Ugh, whyyyyyyyyyyyy?
To try to figure it out, I wrote to Diana Fleischman, a clinical sexologist and senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, in England, who specializes in the science of disgust. According to Fleischman, the satisfaction we get from these videos is an evolutionary response millions of years in the making.
“We evolved in an environment where there were tons of ectoparasites like flies, lice, and tics, which would all transmit disease,” Fleischman explains. “Animals have some adaptations to help keep these things away — a horse in a field with horseflies can use their tails to swat, or vibrate a region of their skin to scare off a fly. Humans have evolved to groom each other to avoid these ectoparasites.”
We’ve also developed a “disgust response” to help ward off these parasites, meaning that we have a physical and emotional recoil to things we think will cause disease. Research has shown that whenever our disgust response is triggered, our skin gets more sensitive, too.
“Any time something comes out of your body, especially from some kind of inflammation, we have a disgust response since fluids like blood and pus are likely to carry disease,” Fleischman says. To get ourselves away from that risk, we scratch, pick, pop, peel — essentially grooming ourselves — and feel a sense of relief and pleasure when we do so.
“When I was a kid, I used to do this with Elmer’s Glue,” Fleischman says. “I’d cover my hand with glue and wait for it to dry and then peel it off. It feels really good to peel things off your skin because it’s an adaptive response. The same way it feels good to peel glue off your skin, you also get this vicarious thrill by watching people pick things out of their bodies.”
It’s not really surprising, then, that when I peruse the /popping subreddit I see comments like I need a cigarette after watching that! And look at that money shot! “When you pick a scab or peel something off you, you feel relief in the same way that you feel relief after having sex,” Fleischman explains. “It’s not sexual gratification per se, but it’s a similar sense of relief and a similar chemical response.” That response would be dopamine, a “feel good” chemical that floods our brain after we pick at ourselves, a neurological reward for behaviors that promote grooming and disease avoidance. “There’s this tension between disgust and pleasure in this way,” Fleischman says.
For some people, anyway. For others, like my husband, there’s only pure disgust. I’m going to tell him this just means I’m more highly evolved.