[Running head: Individual variation in personality and empathy in ASMR.]
Assessing Individual variation in personality and empathy traits in self-reported
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response
Agnieszka B. Janik McErlean1 and Michael J. Banissy2
1. Department of Psychology, James Cook University, Singapore
2. Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths University of London, UK
Address correspondence to:
Dr Agnieszka Janik McErlean
Department of Psychology
James Cook University
149 Sims Drive
Tel: +65 6709 3735
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a self-reported multi-sensory
phenomenon described as a pleasant tingling sensation, triggered by certain auditory
and visual stimuli, which typically originates at the back of the head and tends to
spread throughout the whole body resulting in a relaxed and sedated state. Despite
growing reports of ASMR there is a lack of scientific investigation of this intriguing
phenomenon. This study is the first to examine whether self-reported ASMR is
associated with individual differences in personality characteristics compared to
general population. To do so we administered the Big Five Inventory (BFI) and the
Inter-Personal Reactivity Index (IRI) to a group of individuals reporting to experience
ASMR and a matched control group. Our findings showed that ASMR self-reporters
scored higher on Openness to Experience and lower on Conscientiousness measures
of BFI. They also showed greater scores on Empathic Concern and Fantasizing
subscale of IRI. These findings are discussed in the context of the personality profile
found in synaesthesia, which has been recently suggested to be more prevalent among
people reporting ASMR experiences.
Keywords: ASMR, personality, IRI, BFI, synaesthesia
Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) is a self-reported multi-sensory
phenomenon involving pleasurable tingling sensation induced by specific auditory or
visual triggers, which originates on scalp and spreads down the spine and through the
whole body (Barratt & Davis, 2015). The term itself refers to the euphoric sensation
induced by the various subjective triggers (Cheadle, 2012). Despite a lack of scientific
investigation into ASMR, there are an abundance of social networking sites dedicated
to this phenomenon. There are also hundreds of YouTube channels (see Barratt &
Davis, 2015 for a list of some of the most popular channels), where new ASMR
triggering videos are uploaded daily, resulting in a total of 2.6 million such videos
produced to date (Fairyington, 2014).
ASMR videos often include whisper, crinkly sounds, repetitive and mundane actions
such as ‘towel folding’ and role-plays focused on giving personal attention to the
viewer (e.g. a pretend haircut or make-up); however, due to a lack of scientific
investigation the validity of these experiences and the underlying mechanisms remain
unclear. Recent work by Barratt and Davis (2015) has provided some insights into the
reasons why ASMR responders watch inducing stimuli. They found that 82% of the
viewers self-reported watching ASMR videos to help them sleep, 70% use them to
cope with stress, and 81% reported watching such videos prior to going to sleep. In
addition, the authors suggest that the multi-sensory experiences that constitute ASMR
may be associated with synaesthesia (where one property of a stimulus triggers a
secondary experience not typically associated with the first – e.g. hearing words
evoke the experience of taste – Ward, 2013; Simner & Ward, 2003). This was based
upon a greater self-reported prevalence of synaesthesia among people claiming to
experience ASMR (5.9%) relative to previously published prevalence rates of
synaesthesia in the general population (4.4%; Simner et al., 2006). It is of note,
however, that methodological differences may account for the association between
synaesthesia and ASMR reported by Barratt and Davis (2015) because in their study
the authors relied upon self-reported experience of synaesthesia, whereas in the study
by Simner and colleagues (2006) participants were tested on objective measures to
verify the authenticity of this condition. It is well known that the prevalence of self-
reported synaesthesia is higher than that of those who pass objective measures
verifying synaesthetic experiences (e.g. Simner et al., 2006; Banissy et al., 2009) and
some self-report prevalence studies of synaesthesia suggest that over 20 percent of
individuals report experiencing synaesthesia (e.g. Simner et al., 2006).
Recently, self-reported ASMR has been linked to atypical functional brain
connectivity in the default network relative to controls (Smith et al., 2016). This
finding was interpreted as a potential reflection of a reduced ability to supress multi-
sensory experiences in individuals that experience ASMR (Smith et al., 2016). The
authors also drew further parallels with synaesthesia by suggesting that their findings
of reduced connectivity of the thalamus in ASMR-Responders may play a role in
multi-sensory experiences in a similar way to previous reports of acquired sensory-
emotional synaesthesia, which is descriptively similar to some ASMR experiences,
following a thalamic infarct (Schweizer et al., 2013).
Taking into account the existing findings (Barratt and Davis, 2015; Smith et al., 2016)
and reports of a potential association with synaesthesia, it is feasible to suspect wider
individual differences associated with ASMR compared to the general population. For
example, it has been shown that individuals who experience synaesthesia in which
colour is the evoked sensation have an atypical personality profile, which has been
characterised by higher levels of Openness to Experience, Positive Schizotypy,
Neuroticism, and Absorption / Fantasizing (Banissy et al., 2013; Chun & Hupe, 2016;
Rader & Tellegen, 1987; Janik McErlean & Banissy, 2016; Banissy et al., 2012; Rouw
& Scholte, 2016). Synaesthesia has also less consistently been linked with lower
levels of Agreeableness (Banissy et al., 2013; but see Rouw & Scholte, 2016 and
Chun & Hupe, 2016) and Conscientiousness (Rouw & Scholte, 2016; but see Banissy
et al., 2013 and Chun & Hupe, 2016). Whether a similar atypical personality profile is
present in individuals who report ASMR experiences remains to be determined. To
address this, here we sought to explore whether ASMR is associated with individual
differences in personality by administering the Big Five Inventory (John et al., 1991),
which measures five dimensions of the Big Five personality characteristics
(Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, Openness to
Experience). We also administered the Inter-Personal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1980),
which measures four components of trait empathy (Perspective Taking, Fantasizing,
Empathic Concern, Personal Distress) to a group of individuals reporting ASMR
experiences and to age and gender matched controls. Both of these instruments have
been previously used to examine personality traits in synaesthesia (Banissy et al.,
Material and Methods
83 ASMR-Responders (58 female, 25 male; age M = 27.22 SD = 5.92) and 85
controls (68 female, 17 male; age M = 25.12 SD = 10.55) took part in this experiment.
The two groups did not significantly differ in age [t (132.886) = 1.595, p = .113] or
(1, N = 168) = 2.29, p = .130]. ASMR-Responders were recruited via a
Facebook site dedicated to ASMR (https://www.facebook.com/groups/ASMRGroup/).
All of them were members of the ASMR Facebook group and all reported
experiencing ASMR when provided with a description and question about the
experience. More specifically participants were told ‘ASMR is defined as a
pleasurable tingling sensation that originates on scalp and can spread through the
whole body, which is typically induced by certain sounds (e.g. turning pages, crinkly
wrapping paper, finger tapping), watching someone perform repetitive mundane
actions (e.g. folding towels, going through items in a handbag), watching someone
closely inspecting day-to-day objects, hearing whisper, watching someone's hair being
brushed or watching videos with various role plays (visit to a doctor, spa or a shop)’.
They were then asked ‘Do you experience ASMR?’ All of the ASMR-Responder
Group gave a positive response to this question, none of the controls did.
Additionally, to ensure the genuineness of ASMR experience, all of the AMSR-
Responder Group gave detailed descriptions of their personal ASMR triggers. For
instance, they would explain that ‘Crinkling paper, typing, and writing sounds seem to
be a trigger for me. I usually watch roleplay videos to experience ASMR. Cleaning
sounds without any speaking is a trigger as well, spray bottles, scrubbing and wiping
sounds’. Control participants were recruited among university students, who were
given course credits for their participation. Only those who answered ‘No’ to the
question whether they experience ASMR accompanied by the aforementioned
description of the phenomenon, were included in the control group. Participants gave
electronic consent to take part in this study. This study was conducted online and
participants completed the questionnaires in their own time in one sitting.
Participants completed the Inter-Personal Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis, 1980), which
is a widely used measure of trait empathy. It consists of four subscales: Perspective
Taking (7 items), Fantasizing (7 items), Empathic Concern (7 items) and Personal
Distress (7 items). Perspective Taking subscale examines one’s ability to adopt
someone else’s point of view and contains statements such as e.g. ‘I sometimes try to
understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective’.
Fantasizing refers to a propensity to get immersed in a novel or a film and contains
statements such as e.g. ‘I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a
novel’. Empathic Concern is related to an individual’s ability to feel sorry and
concerned for others in distress and contains statements such as e.g. ‘I often have
tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me’. Personal Distress refers
to feelings of anxiety induced by others’ distress and contains statements such as e.g.
‘In emergency situations, I feel apprehensive and ill-at-ease’. In total IRI consists of
28 items measured on a five point Likert scale ranging from 0 (“does not describe me
well”) to 4 (“describes me very well”).
Additionally, participants completed the Big Five Inventory (BFI; John et al., 1991),
which is a well-established self-report measure of the Big Five personality trait. It
consists of five subscales: Extraversion (8 items), Agreeableness (9 items),
Conscientiousness (9 items), Neuroticism (8 items), and Openness to Experience (10
items). The Extraversion subscale relates to how sociable and energetic one is and
contains items such as e.g.’ I see myself as someone who generates a lot of
enthusiasm’. The Agreeableness subscale taps one’s propensity for altruism and
compliance and contains items such as e.g. ‘I see myself as someone who is
considerate and kind to almost everyone’. Conscientiousness relates to the degree of
dutifulness, competence and self-discipline and contains items such as e.g. ‘I see
myself as someone who is a reliable worker’. Neuroticism examines individual’s level
of anxiety, self-consciousness and vulnerability and contains items such as e.g. ‘I see
myself as someone who gets nervous easily’. The Openness to Experience subscale
refers to how imaginative, excitable and curious one is and contains items such as e.g.
‘I see myself as someone who is curious about many different things’. The instrument
consists in total of 44 items to which a rating on a five point Likert scale ranging from
1 (“disagree strongly”) to 5 (“agree strongly”) is given by a participant to reflect how
well each statement describes their own characteristics.
In addition, participants were asked to describe their favourite triggers and to indicate
what type of a response they have to several triggers commonly used in ASMR videos
including whispering, finger tapping, hair brushing, closely inspecting day-to-day
objects, going through items in a handbag, folding towels, people eating, typing,
crinkly plastic, crinkly paper, and role-plays such as a ‘visit to a doctor’, ‘spa visit’
and ‘office’. They were asked to indicate whether these triggers have no effect, mild
effect or a strong effect in terms of ease of inducing ASMR sensations or whether they
feel unpleasant/uncomfortable. Participants were also asked about their motivation for
watching ASMR videos.
Descriptive breakdown of ASMR triggers and motivation behind watching ASMR
videos in ASMR-Responders
ASMR-Responders provided extensive descriptions of their triggers. The majority of
participants indicated that a whisper or soft speaking was their favourite trigger (41
%), followed by crisp sounds (36.1 %) and personal attention (34.9 %). Concentrating
on things and giving instructions/explaining something in detail were also popular
triggers (both reported by 10.8% of participants). Lip smacking or other eating sounds
were also reported to induce ASMR by 8.5% of participants (see Table 1 for a full
ASMR-Responders also indicated the degree of responsiveness to some of the triggers
commonly used in ASMR videos by choosing one of four possible answers: ‘No
effect’, ‘It feels unpleasant/uncomfortable’, ‘Mild effect’, ‘Strong effect/Easily
induces ASMR’. Whispering was reported to induce a strong response by 54.2% of
participants, followed by finger tapping (53%) and hair brushing (49.4%). Role
playing involving personal attention such as 'visit to a doctor' or ‘spa visit’ were
reported to easily induce ASMR by 44.6 % and 39.8 % of participants respectively.
While 9.6 % of ASMR-Responders reported ‘people eating’ to be a strong trigger, as
many as 25.3% found it to be unpleasant or uncomfortable (see Table 2 for a full list).
When it comes to the motivation for watching ASMR inducing videos, 85.5% of
ASMR-Responders reported watching ASMR videos to relax or to experience ASMR,
41% reported that ASMR videos help them fall asleep and 10.8% stated that ASMR
videos help reduce their anxiety.
Trait Empathy in ASMR-Responders compared to Controls
Mauchly’s test indicated that the assumption of sphericity was violated,
39.45, p < .001, therefore a Greenhouse-Geisser correction was used. Performance on
the IRI was analysed using a 2 (Group) x 4 (IRI subscales) ANOVA, which yielded a
significant main effect of group [F (1, 166) = 35.01, p < .001, ŋp² = .17], due to
ASMR–Responders (M = 25.15) scoring on average higher than controls (M = 22.90).
There was also an interaction effect [F (2.60, 432.71) = 12.61, p < 0.001, ŋp² =.07].
Follow up Bonferroni-corrected paired comparisons showed a significant group
difference on Fantasy Scale (Cronbach’s alpha = .716; t (166) = 6.57, p < 0.001,
Cohen’s d = 1.01) due to ASMR-Responders (M = 28.15, SD = 4.31) scoring higher
than controls (M = 23.80, SD = 4.27). There was also a significant group difference
on Empathic Concern (Cronbach’s alpha = .658; t (130.69) = 6.75, p < 0.001, Cohen’s
d = 1.04), due to ASMR-Responders (M = 27.42, SD = 4.55) scoring higher than
controls (M = 23.52, SD = 2.63) (Fig 1). No significant group differences were found
for Perspective Taking (p = .130 uncorrected) and Personal Distress (p = .695
uncorrected) subscales of the IRI, implying that the differences between ASMR-
Responders and controls were not simply due to a non-specific response bias.
(FIGURE 1 HERE)
Personality Traits in ASMR-Responders compared to Controls
Mauchly’s test indicated that the assumption of sphericity was violated,
54.20, p < .001, therefore a Greenhouse-Geisser correction was used. Performance on
BFI was analysed using 2 (Group) x 5 (BFI subscales) ANOVA, which yielded a non-
significant main effect of group [F (1,166) = 3.842, p = .052, ŋp² = .023]. Importantly,
there was an interaction effect [F (3.39, 562.66) = 11.80, p < 0.001, ŋp² =.066].
Follow up Bonferroni-corrected paired comparisons showed a significant group
difference on Openness to Experience (Cronbach’s alpha = .740, t (159.81) = 6.630, p
< .001, Cohen’s d = 1.02) with ASMR-Responders (M= 40.98 SD = 4.30) scoring
higher than controls (M = 36.01, SD = 5.37) (Fig 2). There was also a significant
difference on Conscientiousness [Cronbach’s alpha = .759, t (166) = 2.68, p = .04,
Cohen’s d =.41] with ASMR-Responders (M = 29.01, SD = 5.98) scoring lower than
controls (M = 31.47, SD = 5.88). ASMR-Responders also scored higher than controls
on Neuroticism (Cronbach’s alpha = .817, p = .021 uncorrected, Cohen’s d = 0.35),
but this difference did not survive multiple correction. No other significant group
differences were found (Extraversion: p = .529 uncorrected, Agreeableness: p = .470
(FIGURE 2 HERE)
This study sought to elucidate whether ASMR is associated with individual
differences in terms of personality traits. To do so, we compared a group of ASMR-
Responders to a group of age and gender matched controls on the BFI (John et al.,
1991) and the IRI (Davis, 1980). Our findings showed that individuals reporting to
experience ASMR scored higher on Empathic Concern and Fantasizing subscale of
IRI. ASMR was also linked to greater scores on the Openness to Experience and
lower scores on Conscientiousness subscales of BFI.
Empathic Concern relates to a person’s predisposition for compassion and concern for
others (Davis, 1983). ASMR-Responders scored higher on this subscale of IRI
suggesting that ASMR is associated with increased levels of sympathy for those who
might be experiencing distress. Openness to Experience refers to individual’s
curiosity and preference for novel and stimulating experiences, increased creativity
and interest in art, as well as a tendency to fantasize (John et al., 2008). At the same
time the Fantasizing dimension of IRI taps into a person’s ability to identify with the
actions and emotions of fictional characters (Davis, 1983). As the two constructs are
conceptually similar and tap on one’s imaginative propensity it is not surprising that
ASMR–Responders scored high on both measures. Current results may also suggest
that having an increased tendency to fantasise and the ability to imaginatively
transpose oneself into a fictional or virtual reality may be a key skill related to video-
induced ASMR. Indeed, the videos, especially those involving role-plays where the
viewer receives personal attention (e.g. gets a pretend haircut), require the viewer to
get imaginatively immersed in the video in order to feel as if he/she really was part of
it. Whether individuals who experience ASMR in their daily lives but do not watch
ASMR videos would present a similar profile with regards to these traits remains to
ASMR-Responders also scored lower than controls on the Conscientiousness subscale
of the BFI, which taps into individual differences in self-discipline, impulse control
and goal orientation (John et al., 1991). Therefore, low scores on this dimension of the
BFI may suggest that ASMR-Responders have the propensity for greater flexibility
and spontaneous behaviour but at the same time they may experience a general lack of
These findings are interesting in the context of Barratt and Davis’ (2015) report on the
prevalence of synaesthesia among people claiming to experience ASMR. They
reported that 5.9% of their ASMR sample claimed experiencing some form of
synaesthesia. Prior work has linked synaesthesia with a similar personality profile to
that reported here for ASMR-Responders. Namely, synaesthesia for colour has been
associated with lower Conscientiousness, increased Openness to Experience and
higher scores on Fantasizing (Rouw & Scholte, 2016; Banissy et al., 2013; Chun &
Hupe, 2016). Synaesthetes have also been reported to show higher levels of
absorption (Rader & Tellegen, 1987), which is a related construct to the Fantasising
scale of IRI. Absorption is defined as a disposition to become deeply involved with
the current experience (Rader & Tellegen, 1987), and it has been previously linked to
daydreaming (Crawford, 1982). Although we did not employ any measures of
absorption in this study, we would expect ASMR to be linked to a heightened level of
this construct as intense concentration on the triggering stimuli such as e.g. closely
inspecting every-day objects, flipping pages or tapping is a pre-requisite for the
pleasurable ASMR sensations (Barratt & Davis, 2015). However, the relationship
between ASMR and absorption remains to be experimentally established.
Current results also showed that the main reasons for watching ASMR videos reported
by ASMR-Responders were similar to those found in the Barratt and Davis (2015)
study. Namely, most people reported watching videos in order to relax, fall asleep and
to reduce anxiety. In addition, the pattern of results in terms of the types of preferred
triggers was very similar across this and Barratt and Davis (2015) study. Especially so
when comparing our results based on participants’ descriptions of their triggers, which
were grouped into broader categories rather than on their responses to a selection of
pre-defined triggers which were perhaps too specific. For instance, finger tapping or
typing were listed separately although they could have been put under one category of
crisp sounds. The three most popular triggers across this and Barratt and Davis (2015)
study were whisper, crisp sounds and personal attention. However, it is of note that
the percentages of people reporting these experiences across the studies were not the
same. This is most likely due to the methodological differences. Namely, the current
study asked participants to describe their motives and preferred triggers and also
requested them to choose one of four answers regarding their response to a few
popular ASMR triggers. At the same time, Barratt and Davis (2015) employed Likert
type ratings of common triggers, which were more broadly defined than the ones used
in the current study. Nevertheless, the results regarding the types of triggers and
motivation for watching ASMR videos across the two studies are similar.
Additionally, the current study found a small percentage of ASMR-Responders
reporting eating sounds to be a trigger. At the same time a substantial proportion of
this group (25.3%) found this stimulus to be unpleasant or uncomfortable. Enhanced
sensitivity to sound, in particular sound produced by humans, is termed misophonia
which literally means ‘hatred of sound’ (Jastreboff & Jastreboff, 2002) and is
estimated to be present in 20% of the general population (Wu, Lewin, Murphy, &
Storch, 2014). People who suffer from misophonia often find sounds such as eating,
breathing or finger tapping so distressing that they may resort to avoidant behaviour,
feel compelled to mimic the sounds or even become physically or verbally aggressive
(Wu, 2014). Interestingly the same sounds are often used in ASMR videos to induce
the pleasurable tingling sensation. In this context it is worth considering that it has
been suggested that misophonia and ASMR might represent two ends of the same
spectrum of sound sensitivity, and that both of these phenomena may be associated
with synaesthesia (Baratt & Davis, 2015). Indeed, the mechanisms of all three
conditions are somewhat similar as all of them involve specific triggers that elicit a
particular response. In case of ASMR and misophonia, the triggers involve human
generated sounds and behaviours, which elicit either pleasurable tingling sensation in
case of ASMR (Barratt and Davis, 2015) or unpleasant physical or emotional response
in case of misophonia (Wu et al., 2014). However, while the current findings may hint
at a greater prevalence of misophonia among ASMR-Responders as evidenced by a
high proportion of them reporting eating sounds to be unpleasant or uncomfortable
this needs to be tested in a more direct manner. It will also be important to more
directly examine other charachertisics that might distinguish synaesthesia from
ASMR and misophonia (and vice versa) including automaticity and consistency of
A further important consideration for future work will be to examine personality
characteristics of ASMR-Responders who were not previously aware of ASMR. As
our sample of ASMR-Responders was mainly comprised of individuals from a
Facebook Group dedicated to this experience, it could be argued that it is not
surprising that individuals who seek out membership in groups like this are more
likely to differ on traits like Openness to Experience. A similar argument can be made
for previous findings linking colour synaesthesia to greater levels of Openness to
Experience (e.g. Banissy et al., 2013; also see Chun & Hupe, 2016 for similar
discussion), since in that study the synaesthetes were sampled from a group of
participants whom had typically sought out research groups and volunteered to
participate in research. It could be argued that volunteers that seek out research are
more likely to have higher Openness to Experience than those who do not, although it
is of note that in the context of synaesthesia higher Openness to Experience is still
found when controlling for sampling method used (Chun & Hupe, 2016; Rouw &
Sholte, 2016). Extending these findings to a systematically recruited sample to help
counter selection bias will be an important next step for future research examining
individual differences in personality traits in ASMR.
Despite this, the degree of similarity in the personality profiles of individuals who
experience synaesthesia and ASMR-Responders is interesting. When paired with the
self-reported prevalence rate of synaesthesia in the Barratt and Davis (2015) study,
this suggests that a systematic examination of the prevalence of synaesthesia in
ASMR using objective measures to verify synaesthetic experiences (e.g. Eagleman, et
al., 2007) will be an interesting avenue for further investigation.
In summary, ASMR appears to not only be linked to unusual multi-sensory
experiences, but is also associated with individual differences in personality traits.
The current findings show that ASMR-Responders score higher on the Openness to
Experience and lower on Conscientiousness dimensions of BFI (John et al., 1991) as
well as higher on Fantasizing and Empathic Concern subscales of IRI (Davis, 1980)
compared to non-responders. Similar personality characteristics have been previously
demonstrated in synaesthesia (Banissy et al., 2013; Chun & Hupe, 2016; Rouw &
Scholte, 2016), which has recently been suggested to be more prevalent among
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Figure 1. Mean responses for ASMR-Responders (N = 83) and controls (N = 85) on
the IRI. Error bars represent SEM. * p < .05, ** p < .005, *** p < .001
Figure 2. Mean responses for ASMR-Responders (N = 83) and controls (N = 85) on
the BFI. Error bars represent SEM. * p < .05, ** p < .005, *** p < .001
Table 1. Percentage of ASMR-responders reporting particular responses to different
Table 2. Percentage of ASMR-responders reporting tingling sensation to particular