Expert blog: Seoul food - why the sensory Korean food phenomenon known as ‘Mukbang’ is becoming popular in the West
Mukbang, a previously uniquely South Korean online phenomenon of watching people eat, is becoming increasingly popular in Western countries. Psychology lecturer and researcher, Dr Andrew Harris, explains why.
The word mukbang (meokbang) is a portmanteau of the Korean words for eating (mugneun) and broadcast/show (bangsong), and so is roughly translated to ‘eating show’.
To understand the success of mukbang in Korea, it is important to understand Korean culture and values. A sense of community, especially at mealtimes, is valued, but as more and more Koreans are living and eating alone, mukbang fills this need. It is easy to see how this trend of watching others eat can move West when we consider that there is arguably nothing more relatable than food consumption and our love of food. Mukbang therefore transcends cultures and borders.
The West has its own typically Westernised spin on the phenomenon. For example, often times these are pre-recorded rather than live broadcasts. The emphasis is much more on the food itself in Korean mukbang, whereas Western versions appear to shift the focus on to the content creators themselves. The West appears to have brought a contest or ‘food challenge’ element to the concept, not too dissimilar to those seen in popular TV shows, such as Man Versus Food.
Korean versions seem to focus much more on providing a greater sensory experience by cracking open lobster shells, or chewing and slurping their food close to the microphone for example, in hopes of providing an ASMR (autonomous, sensory, meridian response), in essence, allowing us to ‘feel’ the experience as we watch. Western versions are more focused on describing the food they are eating, storytelling, and reviewing food in an almost VLOG-style format, rather than creating a social experience per say.
Of interest to our research team, which includes Mr Kagan Kircaburun, Dr Filipa Calado, Professor Mark Griffiths, and myself, is the motivation for engagement in mukbang viewing and potential for the development of addictive watching of these shows.
The Compensatory Internet Use Model argues that compensating unattained offline needs using a specific online activity could lead to the development and maintenance of addictive use of that activity. Viewers of mukbang fulfil many offline needs using this activity. For example, our research highlights that some of the motivations for mukbang use can include fulfilling the need to eat with company and feeling emotionally connected to mukbang content creators and other viewers. It has been shown to help individuals overcome loneliness, by creating a sense of community.
Some even engage as a form of sexual fantasy, either by viewing attractive women who create mukbang content, or because of paraphilias such as being sexually aroused by food (Sitophilia) or the sounds associated with consuming food (e.g. Auralism). Individuals on a diet or those unable to access specific varieties of food watch mukbang in order to experience the vicarious satisfaction of binge eating the craved food. So when an activity fulfils some of these core psychological needs, consumption of that activity can become excessive and even become an addiction when it causes issues for our psychosocial functioning.
There are of course further negative consequences associated with mukbang, such as excessive food consumption and weight gain due to social comparison and mimicking, as well as creating altered perceptions of food portioning, healthy eating, and the glorification of binge eating behaviour.
Some online mukbang content creators have gained a lot of weight or have otherwise seen their health spiral. A notable example is the mukbang content creator Nikocado Avocado. I was recently asked by a concerned journalist, why viewers of mukbang seem to enjoy seeing such deleterious effects? It sounds sinister, but many individuals like to feel superior to others and seeing someone suffer, through their mukbanging or in a variety of other contexts, can provide inward pleasure. This can occur by taking pleasure knowing their situation is not our situation, or it can be rewarding knowing that we are making better life choices than those suffering. It may also be comforting to see others suffer, especially if we ourselves have also suffered.
A more biological explanation is that when we see others in pain, we can take on a mentally similar position to the ‘victim’ (think seeing someone suffer after eating an exceptionally hot chilli) which can trigger a chemical response within our body that has a mild euphoric effect.
Dr Andrew Harris, Psychology lecturer, School of Social Sciences
For further reading, see notes to editors below.
Notes for editors
Further reading on mukbang can be accessed via some of the research team’s publications on this topic:
Kircaburun, K., Stavropoulos, V., Harris, A., Calado, F., Emirtekin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2020). Development and Validation of the Mukbang Addiction Scale. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, DOI.org/10.1007/s11469-019-00210-1.
Kircaburun, K., Harris, A., Calado, F., & Griffiths, M. D. (2020). The Psychology of Mukbang Watching: A Scoping Review of the Academic and Non-academic Literature. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, DOI.org/10.1007/s11469-019-00211-0.
Kircaburan, K., Harris, A., Calado, F., & Griffiths, M. D. (2020). The Association of Addictive Mukbang Watching with Mukbang Watching Motives, Emotion Regulation, Impulsivity, and Psychiatric Distress. Journal of Concurrent Disorders, DOI:10.54127/XQLF8386.
- Category: Press office; Research; School of Social Sciences