Internet of Yum digs into all the things that make us drool while we’re checking our feeds.
The famously sensitive strongman, actor Terry Crews, is screaming at the top of his lungs. In another time and place, you would be sure he was getting tortured. Which, essentially he is — just not as a form of punishment. Instead, the misery is all in the name of promotional entertainment, with Crews’ self-inflicted tears generating views for the YouTube series Hot Ones.
Across the centuries, people have watched transfixed as others dare to eat disgusting, torturous, or sickening amounts of food. The specifics change with the venue, but it is a consistent form of entertainment.
In person, we have the likes of hot dog eating contests and a host of competitive eating events. On reality TV, we had gross-out, rotten, and exotic food competitions on shows like Fear Factor and early YouTube shows like Epic Meal Time. Now, we have viral food challenges like the “cinnamon challenge,” the graphic consumption on display in competitive eating and Mukbang videos on YouTube (and Mukbang-adjacent “cheat day videos”), and, of course, shows like Hot Ones, in which celebrities try to promote their films through streaming tears as they eat increasingly spicy hot wings.
“Competitive eating seems to be one of the hottest trends on YouTube right now,” Josh Scherer, a chef, former food journalist, and current host of a YouTube show called Food Fears, told Mashable.
Click on one video, and you’ll likely find it difficult to stop watching, until you reach your personal breaking point. Can the eater keep going? Will they survive that next bite? How will they endure their suffering? Creators keep making gross-out food entertainment because people keep being transfixed by it, generating millions and millions of views, despite the fact that the spectrum of emotional responses is pretty small and unpleasant to behold.
Developmental psychology, and a theory called benign masochism, could hold some answers for why we can’t look away.
Benign masochism is a theory created by the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin. He found that it is enjoyable to experience something scary or unpleasant in a safe environment, when you’re not in any real harm. Think: a roller coaster, scary movie, or, in our case, a 20-pound cheeseburger. You get the adrenaline rush, sans the threat to your life.
“Basically you hurt yourself a little bit, but not in a dangerous way,” Josh Rottman, a professor of developmental psychology at Franklin & Marshall College, who studies the role of disgust in child development, told Mashable. “Benign masochism are things that tend to be really pleasurable pretty universally. They make us feel like we’re putting ourselves in danger. But we’re doing it sort of in a safe way.”
Along with the “pleasures” of benign masochism, another explanation for why gross-out videos are alluring comes from child development.
“My hypothesis for what’s going on in Hot Ones and all of these other situations where people are glued to screens watching people eat crazy things is that food choices are really, really difficult issues for humans,” Rottman said.
Rottman explained that deciding what is and is not safe to eat is an ongoing developmental challenge, especially in children, but throughout our lives, too. Studies on what holds babies’ attention have found that “things that have relevance for survival potential” are “pleasurable to stare at,” Rottman said. We may not realize it while watching competitive eating YouTubers, but we’re actually watching people test the limits of what will and won’t harm them, which is developmentally valuable, and ends up stimulating our brains. Our impulse as kids to learn what’s safe and what’s not creates a fascination about these things that carries into our adult YouTube viewing habits.
“It could just be a vestige and not every single instance of finding pleasure in something like that is going to really teach us anything or really be that adaptive, but probably in the long-term on the whole, it will be,” Rottman said.
Event organizers, TV execs, show producers, and individual creators have seized on that biological fascination, and the pleasure generated by benign masochism, whether they realize it or not. Bridget Rubenking, a professor of media psychology at the University of Central Florida who studies disgust, likens gross-out content to rubbernecking at an accident on a freeway: “There’s nothing good to see there, but how many times have you been slowed down by traffic because of an accident on the other side of the highway?”
“Disgust grabs our attention, draws us in, and when shown on a screen instead of real life, we’re in a safer place to learn from it and enjoy it,” Rubenking said. “It is really attention-grabbing and captivating. So from a content creation standpoint, that’s a great effect.”
Creators are capitalizing on the attention-grabbing powers of disgust in an ever more competitive environment. That’s led to shows and videos with higher stakes and more grotesque challenges — watch competitive eater Matt Stonie down anything for a look at how far we’ve come — that make Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest look quaint.
“It isn’t surprising that more recent iterations have become more over-the-top,” Rubenking said. “We see most risqué content increase in shock value over time, and it is certainly something we can become desensitized to over time, so that it takes more disgusting content to elicit the same response in diehard fans as time goes on.”
Even if we can understand the attraction biologically, it’s difficult to celebrate the work of the creators where the sole point is to consume, consume, consume. The amount of food created and consumed just for YouTube views seems wasteful at best, and potentially exploitative and dangerous for people trying to make a buck by punishing their bodies.
However, some creators are reckoning with how to tap into the viral powers of food as a spectacle, while staying true to their love for food, and desire to deliver something valuable to their viewers.
“The whole spectacle and entertainment aspect is a way for people to get a foot in the door for caring about food on a deeper level,” Scherer said. “It’s not a perfect system, and I can see where the logic would start to break down, but I know for me, people have lower and lower attention spans. You need to reach out and grab people faster than ever before.”
Hot Ones is not just popular because of the cringe factor of the hot wings challenge — its dual hook is that it features celebrities eating these spicy foods, so you get to see a usually polished and inaccessible person in a vulnerable position. That’s genuinely fun — and has created a ton of value for the Hollywood marketing engine, which now regularly includes Hot Ones in celebrities’ promotional circuits.
On Food Fears, Scherer is trying to achieve something similar; he too brings on celebrity guests for food challenges. However, he’s also trying to de-stigmatize many of the foods Westerners see as “disgusting,” that in another context and culture is a delicacy.
“I noticed that a lot of the ‘gross foods’ that they eat are things that I really enjoy,” Scherer said. “Liver, kidneys, brains, all this stuff. I pitched this concept where I said let me take those foods that you think are super, super gross, and let me cook a very delicious dish out of them.”
Scherer’s concept has some interesting biological implications. In addition to the survival benefits that watching people eat “disgusting” food has, there is also a social element. Rottman explained that having a disgust reaction to food is one way that groups could distinguish outsiders from insiders.
“The kinds of things that we feel disgusted at tend to align ourselves with a group,” Rottman said. “So, one way of really demarcating group boundaries is having signals that are really hard to fake.”
Working against the evolutionary challenge of the disgust impulse has had some interesting results. In one infamous episode, Scherer cooks up a massive, rubbery bull penis into a pesto pizza. Scherer’s boss, the YouTube creator (and “gross food” taster himself) Link Neal, calls it “the worst pizza I’ve ever had;” apparently, our social biases run deeper than gooey mozzarella.
Still, Scherer is encouraged by his guests’ willingness to try the food with an open mind — and open up while they’re at it.
“I think that’s kind of a beautiful thing about food in a nutshell,” Scherer said. “It’s something very emotional and vulnerable for people, and universal.”
In a recent episode of Food Fears, Terry Crews tested his culinary endurance once again. He gags as he eats turkey testicles plain. But once Scherer cooks them up into the family macaroni and cheese recipe that Crews loves, Crews chows down with gusto, saying, “It’s good!”
Turkey testicles, it turns out, used to be a delicacy in the U.S., until contemporary food manufacturing displaced the concept of eating every part of an animal. Scherer’s turkey testes mac ‘n cheese was indeed a gross-out spectacle, but also contained a lesson about how discarding parts of animals just because we’re not familiar with them is wasteful — for the birds, the planet, and your stomach.
When talking about his changing opinion of Chitlins (pig intestines), Crews makes a salient point: “One day one thing’s bad, one day one thing’s good. Now I’m up for everything.”