In TikTok, a car dealer throws a vinyl mat on the ground. A pressure washer begins to rinse away the dirt as a voice beckons the viewer: “Look how easily this mat becomes brand new!”
A hand moves the nozzle back and forth as dirt and grime are methodically washed away. The detailer then uses a cleaning brush attached to a power drill to attack the dirt in the groves of the mat. The pressure washer performs one final rinse and in 45 seconds the dirt-covered mat is sparkling new. The creator, WD Detailing, has almost 800,000 followers on TikTok as well as a YouTube channel with a cleaning video that has has been viewed 13 million times.
Many people find it satisfying to watch sinks being scrubbed or carpets being cleaned. Apps like TikTok even have designated hashtags – like the wildly popular ones #CleanTalk, which has almost 50 billion views — so users can quickly find content. Research into this sensory phenomenon is only a decade old, but scientists are already learning why this content can be so satisfying.
Whispers and spinning fans
Why would anyone watch a video of a dirty shower being sponged? For many of the same reasons people watch videos with the sounds of paper screeching or typing on a keyboard: The audio-visual experience can cause a pleasant reaction called the Autonomic Sensory Meridian Response or ASMR.
Triggers vary. Some people report that their ASMR is triggered by soft sounds like whispers or whirring fans. Others prefer the sounds and sights associated with cleaning, such as running faucets and spinning brush bristles. And the sensations themselves also vary. Many describe the reaction as a tingling sensation that begins in the scalp, neck or shoulder. ASMR can help a person relax and people report that it calms them before sleep.
However, not everyone experiences ASMR. In a 2018 study Plus one, 81 percent of participants classified themselves as able to experience ASMR. Average they were the first to understand of their ASMR abilities around age 15, and most said they now use ASMR videos to induce the pleasurable sensation.
For those who didn’t experience ASMR, the study found there were still benefits. The ASMR content lowered participants’ heart rates and they reported feeling relaxed. “So it’s possible that even if you don’t get the tingling response of ASMR, you still get emotional benefit from ASMR content,” says Julia Lara Poerio, the study’s lead author and a psychologist at the University of Essex in England.
YouTube has an extensive library of ASMR content. One can play a 10-hour video of oscillating fan noises, or a 29-minute video devoted to watching steam cleaners methodically remove stains from dirty carpets.
But what types of people tend to feel the tingling sensation of ASMR rather than the general feeling of satisfaction? Scientists have been able to identify common personality traits among people who may experience ASMR, according to a 2017 study in Frontiers in Psychology. The study authors worked with a group of 290 people who said they had experienced ASMR and a control group of the same size. They all completed the Big Five Personality Inventory as well as a questionnaire related to their ASMR experiences.
Compared to the control group, people who experienced ASMR had higher neuroticism and openness to experience scores. They also have lower levels of conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness.
Follow-up study from 2022 Plus one consider the claim of neuroticism having both ASMR-capable individuals and a control group view content and complete personality assessments. Researchers confirmed that people who experienced ASMR had higher levels of neuroticism. Participants also reported higher levels of anxiety, which they said were soothed by ASMR content. As a result, the researchers concluded that there may be opportunities for ASMR in therapeutic settings.
Not everyone can experience ASMR, and scientists still don’t agree on what percentage of the population actually feels these tingles. However, ASMR content can still be satisfying, and Poerio says that people use media content (whether it’s music or cleaning videos) to regulate their emotions.
A sense of control, for example, is an emotion that some psychologists is rooted in survival, meaning that the desire to control the environment is an adaptive behavior. Yet the world can seem like a very chaotic place that one cannot control.
Cleaning videos provide a controlled environment where car mats are cleaned and the mess cleared, often at increased speed, so a job that could take hours is done in less than a minute. And for some people, that can be satisfying. “So if people might want to experience something indirectly like control, then that might be possible through something like video cleaning,” Poerio says.
However, one person’s satisfaction from ASMR can be another’s annoyance. A 2018 study found that people with ASMR had higher levels of misophonia, aversion to specific sounds. For one person, the gentle hum of a steam cleaner can be soothing. But for others, it might just piss them off.