This is curious to me.
Why is it that two individuals can watch the same video and one person feels relaxed by it and the other person feels creeped out by it?
And why is the word “creepy” so often used but never the word “frightening”?
There must be something common to a relaxing situation and to a creepy situation that is not common to a frightening situation.
And there is.
Let me begin by differentiating a creepy situation from a frightening situation.
Compare the following two situations.
Situation A: Imagine you are walking down a dimly lit street and an untidy man is leaning against the wall. He is staring at you with a slight smile as you are walking by. He whispers towards you in a very slow and gentle tone, “Hey friend, come here for a second.” You step towards him and he slowly raises his hand and rests it on your arm. He whispers softly and calmly that he likes your hair and would like to touch it. This is a creepy situation. You are unsure if you are in danger.
Situation B: Now imagine that the same man suddenly grabs your arm firmly, starts shaking you vigorously, swings a knife through the air with his other hand, and then begins yelling for your wallet. This is a frightening situation. You are clearly in danger.
So a key aspect of a creepy situation is the possibility that you are in danger. As soon as it is clear that you are in danger then it becomes a frightening situation.
What prevented your brain from perceiving the man in situation A as an obvious threat? His behavior. He was not making any threatening motions, he was smiling, he was making eye contact, he touched you tenderly, and he was speaking softly, slowly, and in a gentle tone.
In other words, he was trying to get you to relax and trust him by using behavior patterns that your brain interprets as safe. But you did not feel safe because there were other subtle dangers signals that conflicted with the subtle safety signals – and therefore the situation felt “creepy.”
What do creepy situations and relaxing situations have in common? Both situations involve behaviors that are often displayed by individuals to communicate safety: non-threatening motions or sounds, whispers or soft voices, steady vocal tones, caring looks, smiling expressions, eye-contact, and gentle touches.
If your brain believes these signals of safety are sincere, then the situation feels relaxing.
If your brain believes these signals of safety are insincere, then the situation feels creepy.
So it should now make sense why different individuals can have different reactions to a video of a stranger talking softly and staring into your eyes. How you experience a video is subjective, it is dependent on if you perceive the stranger to be sincere or insincere.
If you perceive the behaviors of the stranger in the video as sincere, then you may feel relaxed because your brain is convinced that this stranger is safe.
If you perceive the behaviors of the stranger as insincere, then you may feel creeped out because your brain senses this stranger is just pretending to be safe, and this could actually be an unsafe situation.
If you compare the two potential responses someone could have to a stranger in a video pretending to be someone who cares about you, not only does the term and concept of “creepy” make sense, but it could be argued to be a more logical reaction than feeling relaxed. This makes ASMR even more fascinating to me.
Some ASMR artists may be more successful than other artists because they are better at enacting behaviors that are perceived as genuine and therefore perceived as relaxing. The viewer’s brain is registering the artist as safe, and perhaps even trustworthy.
So the fact that some people find some ASMR videos creepy seems to provide confirmation that the typical ASMR triggers (slow movement, soft voice, caring tone, steady eye contact, reassuring smile, gentle touch, etc.) are activating – or attempting to activate – physiological pathways that are involved with interpersonal bonding, trust, comfort, and safety.
My explanation in this post is mostly about the potential psychology of why someone might experience an ASMR video as creepy. It will be another challenge to explain the biology of why several individuals can have such different responses to the exact same ASMR video.
Responses to ASMR videos can be categorized as positive responders (various levels of feeling relaxed), negative responders (various levels of feeling disturbed), and non-responders.
Positive responders to ASMR videos may have increased sensitivity to, or production of, the hormones and neurotransmitters involved in relaxation and comfort (eg, endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin). Or positive responders may have decreased sensitivity to, or production, of the hormones and neurotransmitters involved in alertness and stress (eg, norepinephrine, epinephrine, cortisol).
Negative responders to ASMR videos may have increased sensitivity to, or production of, the hormones and neurotransmitters involved in alertness and stress (eg, norepinephrine, epinephrine, cortisol). Or negative responders may have decreased sensitivity to, or production of, the hormones and neurotransmitters involved in relaxation and comfort (eg, endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin).
Non-responders may just have average sensitivity and production levels of these molecules.
Although I have focused this post on ASMR videos, the concepts here also apply to real world ASMR. Having another person whisper in your ear or touch your hair may feel relaxing, creepy, or neither for different groups of people.
As always, there is a lot here that can be much better understood with research.
Click HERE to read more about my proposed theories for the potential biology of ASMR.
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