Go to Buzzfeed, Instagram’s trending stories, or any popular YouTube channel and you can quickly find ASMR videos of moments that make people comment, “…so satisfying.”

You’ll see hands stretching slime or clay pots spinning on wheels. Paint pours onto canvas. Fires timelapse across sculptures made of matches.

I really noticed the monetization of this phenomenon in 2017. Our country had (for better or worse), just made it through a grueling election process full of fearful commentary, shrill talking heads, and ugly stories in “trending columns.”

There were these moments of reprieve — swirling videos of color and calm — that everyone kept sharing and liking. What started as a few organic media moments became a churning content carousel.

How We Regulate Our Feelings

As I watched these bizarre terms like “best slime videos” trend, it kind of made sense. People were massively upset and emotionally burnt out.

“Slime” on Google Trends

This media trend relies on the concept of mood management — the idea that people try to regulate their stress through the messages they consume.

Mood management theory suggests that we can change people’s moods through messages. The concept started with Zillman and Bryant as they proposed that people select media content to reshape their moods. They called the theory “affect-dependent stimulus arrangement.” Knobloch renamed the concept as “mood management.”

Cognitive Dissonance

These questions started with Leon Festinger’s studies in cognitive dissonance. His body of work hinges on the idea that people avoid mental stress. Whenever a trigger presents, the mind attempts to deal with that trigger and go back to a state of non-stress.

Inside all of our minds are cognitions — beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge. We like to have a congruity among all of these cognitions, meaning that they all fit together nicely.

But, when a person holds two cognitions that don’t fit together, he experiences dissonance (mental stress).

This often happens when people are introduced to new ideas or information. It will conflict with their existing thoughts. And that puts the mind into overdrive.

People resolve that overdrive in several ways. One key way is selective exposure. People seek out only the information that fits with their existing framework of thinking.

Festinger’s theories were focused on persuasive arguments — issues of substance.

Zillman and Bryant took that concept a step forward and tried to apply it to all areas of messaging like news, documents, comedies, dramas, tragedies, music performances, and even sports.

Instead of focusing on one mental state — dissonance — Zillman and Bryant looked at moods more generally.

Mood Management Theory

Mood Management theory emerged from several key assumptions. First, Zillman and Bryant believed that humans are motivated toward pleasure and away from pain. So, it follows that people will arrange their environment to create a good mood. They will actively avoid triggers for a bad mood.

The environmental arrangement is defined in several ways:

  • Physically moving away from situations that create a negative effect
  • Moving toward gratifying situations
  • Selecting entertainment choices that reshape their moods

The theory suggests that people are not aware of these motivations.

The indicated hedonistic objective is best served by selective exposure to material that (a) is excitationally opposite to prevailing states associated with noxiously experienced hypo- or hyperarousal, (b) has positive hedonic value above that of prevailing states, and (c) in hedonically negative states, has little or no semantic affinity with the prevailing states.

Zillman, Mood management in the context of selective exposure theory

These preferences are controlled by a subconscious operant conditioning behavior. People build habits over time through a natural process of reinforcement or punishment. We teach ourselves.

ASMR Videos

This brings us to ASMR or Autonomous sensory meridian response. Now, ASMR is a content category defined by a singular sensation — positive feelings and a physical tingling that people describe as a light euphoria.

Sometimes, people call them brain tingles. They’re calm and relaxing. It’s why Bob Ross has re-surfaced as a Gen Z icon. But, is it scientific?

Not exactly.

NPR’s “Short Wave” explored the topic and pulled together key takeaways. First, ASMR started in internet lore. It’s not a scientific study. In 2007 an online thread on SteadyHealth.com discussed, “Weird Sensation Feels Good” on the website SteadyHealth.com. Later, a self-proclaimed enthusiast, Jennifer Allen named that feeling ASMR or “autonomous sensory meridian response.” Second, people separate it from sexual arousal. It’s a tingling on the skin without the increased heart rate of other arousal states. Third, some people don’t experience this sensation. Only a few studies have been done on the topic but, it doesn’t affect the entire population.

For a lot of people, these sensory-focused videos alter their moods. Many channels liberally label as ASMR videos. People report feeling more positive and calm after watching them. That behavior — seeking out stimulus to reorient our mental-emotional state — links directly back to mood management theory.

The Next Big

While we can’t predict the next big content trend, people will always tune to media that makes them feel better. Whether that’s ASMR videos of popping bubble wrap or carefully slicing pieces of cake, the principle remains the same.

In our tech-crowded world, people appreciate these moments of mental relief and momentary euphoria. If you start by thinking about that very human need for calming content, you can create media that matches the market.

Additional Reading

Article Sources

  • Festinger, L. (1962). “Cognitive dissonance”. Scientific American207 (4): 93–107.  Bibcode:1962SciAm.207d..93Fdoi:10.1038/scientificamerican1062-93PMID 13892642.
  • Knobloch-Westerwick, S. (2007) Gender Differences in Selective Media Use for Mood Management and Mood Adjustment, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 51:1, 73-92, DOI: 10.1080/08838150701308069
  • Zillmann, D. (2000). Mood management in the context of selective exposure theory. In M. f. Roloff (ed.), Communication yearbook 23 (pp. 103–123). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.