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Recently, you may have noticed a lot of memes on the Internet joking about eating Tide Laundry Pods. It was just a bit of absurdist fun until videos and stories started popping up of people actually eating them and experiencing some pretty horrible side effects.

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Over the last few months, you might have seen people sharing photos online of Tide laundry detergent pods as pizza toppings, or like a big plate of ravioli. Like any meme, it’s funny because it’s absurd.

You’re obviously not supposed to eat laundry detergent, but those little pods are kind of food-like. But then there’s the Tide pod challenge, where people — mostly teenagers — started posting videos of themselves taking a bite. And the problem is, the pods are actually pretty dangerous.

In the first 3 weeks of 2018, at least 86 American teens have gotten sick enough to alert poison control. People have understandably started freaking out, and YouTube and Facebook are pulling the videos out of public safety concerns. So, why have Tide pods spun out of control?

We’re going to try to break down the psychology behind the fad and explain how risky choices and internet fame could’ve played a part. For one, the pods kind of look like oversized candies or Gushers fruit snacks. They’re bite-sized, and can have colorful swirls.

That’s probably why toddlers chow down on them. They’re expecting a treat, not a concentrated dose of cleaning goop. Adults might not be deceived, but this whole pods-as-food meme could’ve started for similar reasons.

Turns out, even the shiny plastic coating might be appealing. Humans like glossy objects, and one psychology study suggests it’s because they remind us of water, which we need to survive. In one experiment, people rated glossy items as even more desirable when they were fed crackers but not given a drink, compared to a group of people who got both.

Tide also describes its original pod scent as having “floral and fruity notes,” almost like it’s a fancy wine. Of course, not all of them read l ike a menu. The ‘Plus Febreeze’ and ‘Spring Meadow’ versions sound like the laundry detergents that they are.

But using food-related marketing to promote cleaning or hygiene products is common, and it’s led to some problems before. We love food, so companies will draw on those associations to make their boring cleaning products more appealing. Just think about ‘sugar cookie’ candles, ‘watermelon fusion’ shampoo, or bath bombs in virtually every cupcake flavor.

And while it seems obvious that we shouldn’t eat those things, people have. One study found that packaging is partly to blame. If you put people in an fMRI machine and have them look at basic designs of cleaning products, sometimes the same parts of the brain that respond to food packaging become activated.

The study is very preliminary, but the authors suggest that food-related marketing fools your brain, at some level, into thinking cleaning products are edible. But there’s still a leap between thinking Tide pods look kind of like candy and eating them for fun. And this is where being a teenager could be important.

Teens are notorious for doing risky things, and a lot of that may be related to brain development. In those awkward years, scientists think the prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate self-control, is still developing. At the same time, the reward-sensitive parts of the brain are extra active.

That imbalance seems to be even more out of whack when teens are being social or surrounded by friends. And teens seem to take more chances than adults when it comes to unknown risks, like using a drug they don’t know much about. Because they might focus on possible rewards more than possible consequences.

It's not that you can't override this risk-taking behavior, but it could explain why we’re seeing teenagers, rather than older adults, popping Tide pods in their mouths. Another part of it might have to do with the warnings not to eat the pods, which might make people think, “How bad could they be?” This gets at something psychologists call reactance. People hate being told what to do.

A natural reaction to a limit on your independence is to do a thing anyway. Researchers have seen this with warning labels on cigarettes and violent video games — they can backfire and actually increase the appeal. This is sometimes called the boomerang effect or forbidden fruit effect.

To be fair, not all warnings do this, and it doesn’t affect everyone. So it’s hard to say whether this is actually driving people to eat the pods. The vast majority of people aren’t doing it, because, well, they get that eating concentrated laundry detergent isn’t good.

But something has to be prolonging the joke, and maybe it has to do with internet fame. Some psychologists have noticed that in recent years, more and more pre-teens have become preoccupied with fame, and are using social media to get it. In one focus group, 8 out of 20 kids said fame was the most important value to them, beating out things like kindness or success.

And the Tide pod challenge is also exactly the type of thing that tends to go viral, which is what these people probably want for their videos. Researchers have repeatedly found that content that makes us emotional is more likely to be shared. That can include things like anxiety or awe, as well as disgust.

Now, because burning curiosity might encourage more risky behavior and challenge videos, here’s what happens when you eat a Tide pod. And, frankly, there’s a lot of burning. Laundry pods are full of chemicals called surfactants, which are molecules that can grab ahold of dirt on one end, and attract water on the other.

So when they’re rinsed away, they remove grime. That means they’re great at cleaning clothes, but aren’t meant to be inside of your body. Once they’re in your mouth, the pod chemicals will start eating away at your tissues — from your throat down to your stomach.

The most common reaction to all this is vomiting, which can be extreme, like throwing up blood. Kids who have eaten the pods have stopped breathing, had seizures, or gone into comas. A few children have died, as well as several adults with dementia who ate pods.

Doctors don’t know for sure why pods are so dangerous, because regular liquid laundry detergent isn’t as bad. It could be because of the higher concentration, the ingredients, or something about the packet itself. Laundry pods are also more toxic than dishwasher pods, and liquid pods are worse than powder ones.

So of course the Tide pod challenge involves the most hazardous concoction. So, Internet, we understand the appeal. Or at least we can guess, until some psychologists do serious research on challenge videos.

These pods are enough like food that the memes can be funny. But please don’t actually eat them. You can’t enjoy your fame if you’re dead.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow News! If you want to learn more about the internet and our brains, you can check out videos like “What Makes a Meme Go Viral?” over on SciShow Psych at ♪Outro♪.