We humans

Why pleasure is important

Jun 10, 2015 /

Psychologist Paul Bloom studies the nature of pleasure. In this conversation with Ben Lillie, he discusses how knowing the history of an object can profoundly affect our enjoyment of it.

Why is the origin of things so deeply important to us?

We have a biological adaptation called “essentialism,” which is a particularly clever and important adaptation that drives us to focus on the deeper aspect of things. For instance, it matters, when you look at people, not to be entirely moved by what they look like, but also to be influenced by what you believe to be their histories and their hidden properties. For food, it matters where it came from and what it touched. For animals, you want to know what they can do to you and how they behave, not just their surface appearance. For these reasons, I think we’ve evolved to have an essentialist bias.

Having said that, a lot of the specific phenomena I talk about are what scholars like Stephen Jay Gould call “spandrels”— biological accidents. They’re built from an innate basis, but they aren’t themselves adaptive.

In my TED Talk, The origins of pleasure, I discuss briefly our attraction to objects that have been in contact with celebrities, such as George Clooney’s sweater. I don’t think that that’s an adaptation in any sense of the term. I certainly don’t think that those individuals in the past who liked objects that were touched by celebrities reproduced more than those who didn’t. My view, then, is that the general bias towards essentialism is an adaptation, but some of its most interesting manifestations are accidents.

I’m fascinated by these wine studies you cite — that how expensive we think wine is influences how much we enjoy it. Is there an element of pleasure that is not tied to our notion of where things came from? 

I wouldn’t deny that a lot of what matters about wine is its chemical composition. After all, if somebody hands you a glass of gasoline, you’re not going to like it, even if they also tell you that it’s from a thousand-dollar bottle of wine.

So, plainly we have sense organs that give us information about things. Plainly the reason why we like things more than others is because of their superficial qualities. It would be crazy to deny that. The strong point that I’m making, though, is that for all of our pleasures, even those that seem the most sensory — like the taste of wine or sexual orgasm or stepping into a hot bath — your beliefs about the true nature of these experiences will always make a difference.

So wine is a good example. Like I said, part of your response to wine is based on its chemical properties. But how you experience it will always be affected by your beliefs about what you are drinking. Now this opens you up to being fooled. Given that we’re creatures who respond to the history of things, we can be exploited. You could be lied to about the price of wine, you could be lied to about where your sweater came from, you could be lied to about whether your painting is an original or a forgery, and so on. This is the bad news. On the other hand, our essentialism opens up a world of pleasurable experience that no other creature has. Our essentialism is why we have art, for instance. Other creatures might respond to colorful patterns, but they can’t be moved by an act of creation because they aren’t essentialist.

Here’s another case: We find a face more attractive if we like that person. So, is that stupid? Is it a cognitive illusion? I don’t think so. Yes, if you start with a core belief saying the only thing that should matter about attractiveness is bone structure and facial geometry and the clarity of skin and so on, then it’s a mistake to respond on the basis of liking. But who says that it’s only the superficial that should matter? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a pleasure that goes deep.

Does knowing that this is where our pleasure comes from change how we “should” approach our pursuit of pleasure?

I’ve often wondered that, and I think it does in a couple of ways. For one thing, if I’m right, it makes respectable some aspects of pleasure that people have often been ashamed of. Art is a good example. Some people think that to prefer original artwork or to be interested in who created the art is a sign of some sort of moral or intellectual laziness or snobbery. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think caring about who the artist is and how the painting was created and where it came from is just part and parcel of what it is to be a human being who is reacting to art. At the very minimum, then, what you learn from the science of pleasure can help you have a better understanding of your own pleasures.

The only practical implication I can think of for this work is: if you want to enhance the pleasures of your every day life, one way to do so is through knowledge. If you want to enjoy wine more, the trick is to learn more about wine. If you want to enjoy art more, the trick is to learn about art. The more understanding you get, the richer your experiences will be. I think music is the perfect example of this. For young kids most classical music sounds terrible (and for some people it will always sound terrible). But the more you listen to it, the more you will understand it, and the better it will sound to you. Like everything else I talk about, this is a real, visceral, phenomenological change. It’s not like you say, “Oh this music is boring and unpleasant but now I know a lot about it.” It’s that “it no longer sounds boring and unpleasant; it sounds rich and nuanced and exhilarating.”

That feeds into that old question about whether learning the science of biology kills the beauty of the flower. You would argue that it enhances it quite a bit.

I would. Now many people do worry that science kills beauty, but I don’t think this is true at all. It is just not true that studying something from a scientific point of view diminishes the richness of it. It’s just not the case that scientists who study sex lose interest in sex or evolutionary biologists find that they no longer love their children. [Laughs]

It’s funny to present as an empirical claim, which clearly it should be, but it’s rarely ever presented that way.

Yes, and I do think it’s worth studying. My own view is along the lines of what Richard Dawkins said in his book Unweaving the Rainbow — it will turn out that the serious study of someone enhances one’s appreciation of its beauty, it doesn’t diminish it. Certainly this is true when you look at the human mind. When you start to explore research into psychology, neuroscience and cognitive science, it turns out that the mind is just so much cooler than you could have ever imagined.

A personal example I can think of actually comes not from psychology, but from cosmology. I was once in a terrible mood, and I just happened to stumble on a book by Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes, about the origin of the universe. I brought it with me on a hike, and read it while stopping for lunch — and man, I just thought it was incredible. It cheered me up so much. It struck me that the scientific ideas he talked about it were so much cooler than, say, the religious ideas. The religious ideas of creation of the universe are basically that some big guy made it. Religions have held these ideas because they’re natural and intuitive and commonsensical, but the cosmological ideas aren’t any of that. They were just gorgeous.

When I read work by someone who has thought deeply about something, it could be a scientist or philosopher or theologian or art critic, I end up with more of an appreciation of that thing. As a rule, studying something, knowing a lot about it, enhances your pleasure, it doesn’t reduce it. I don’t think Robert Ebert hates movies.

You talk about how we don’t like forgeries because the history isn’t what we thought it is, but do you know of people who get attracted to the idea of forgeries and who collect good forgeries?

Yes. My claim is that history matters. And in the normal course of things an original is worth more than a forgery, because an original is more creative and so on. But you can think of exceptions. In fact, we’ve had laboratory studies showing that even your normal person under the right circumstances will find the forgery more valuable than an original.

As a real world example, take The Supper at Emmaus. When it was discovered not to be by Vermeer, but to be a forgery, its value dropped horrendously. I looked for where it ended up when I wrote my book and I found it was in a traveling exhibit on forgeries. It would never regain its value. On the other hand, it will develop its own special value because it now has a distinct history as a famous fraud.

We find the appeal of negative history in other studies — I talked about the George Clooney sweater study, but we also did a Bernie Madoff study. We asked people to name somebody that they really don’t like and asked what they would pay for a sweater that was worn by them. Now some people say, “Absolutely nothing.” They don’t want anything to do with it. But others will pay a lot. There’s also something called murder-abilia, where people want Jeffrey Dahmer’s sweatshirt and John Wayne Gacy’s finger painting and so on. I think that that sort of history can be valuable too, at least for some people.

Much of what I end up doing for a living involves studying fairly subtle laboratory effects. But one thing I like about this topic is that the effects aren’t subtle at all — our intuitions concerning forgeries and history are so often incredibly strong. There are Vermeers right now on sale that people worry are van Meegerens. Nobody says “Who cares?”. The difference is an extraordinary amount of money, a deep shift in our emotional and aesthetic responses.

There’s a wonderful story of this person who had his Picasso tested to see if it was forgery; and found out the paints were from a period they couldn’t be made from, so it had to be a mistake. In fury, he destroyed it, smashed it up, and threw it in a dumpster. He discovered later that the person who tested it was mistaken.

You can’t see me, but that produced a visceral reaction at the thought of that that painting being destroyed.

But if the story had ended that he threw out the painting and it actually was a forgery, you’d think, “Yeah, well ok…”

This presumably applies to things that aren’t objects as well. Does the fact that I know you’re a Yale professor affect my perception of your ideas?

Yes. I think that it does. The issue here is messy, because there are all sorts of considerations having to do with status and association that don’t work in exactly the same way as for paintings. But certainly, your belief about where an idea comes from will affect how you evaluate it and how you appreciate it. The same idea from two very different people will be interpreted in two very different ways, based on what you know about the people.

It seems like that has immediate implications in policy more than anywhere else.

It does, and in part it’s common sense. If we’re talking politics and I say, “my friend told me such and so” versus “A Nobel Prize winner told me such and so,” you would respond differently. The value of an idea is so strongly related to who you think has it.

There’s a nice study by Geoffrey Cohen who told people about imaginary welfare policies. One of them is insanely generous by American standards and the other insanely strict. He told the subjects that they were either by Republicans or Democrats. It turns out that the subjects didn’t care at all about the merits of the policy, whether it’s strict or lax; they just cared who said it. If you’re a Democrat and think it is a democratic policy you’ll say “Oh, this is terrific. This is so smart.” You won’t even know this is why you like it; you’ll think that you are moved by the merits of the proposal itself. We’re influenced in ways we don’t know by the source of things.

Is there a way of thinking about that fact without me getting incredibly depressed?

[Laughing] Why would you get depressed about it?

At face value, it tells me I’m not nearly as capable of making a rational evaluation of things as I think I am. Then it leads me to think that maybe, if I extrapolate this probably past where I should, maybe there isn’t a lot of rationality going into our policy decisions at any level.

A lot of people draw that conclusion. You’re right, we are subject to a lot of these biases to some extent. Some of these biases are benign or even good, like seeing someone you know as more positive than a stranger. Others are sinister and stupid and terrible.

But here’s the thing: we are such smart creatures that when we’re troubled by a bias, we can change the world so as to exclude the contaminating factors we are worried about.

Here’s an example: When people listen to auditions from a symphony orchestra, music sounds different from a woman than from a man. It doesn’t sound as good from a woman. But this perceived difference isn’t due to a real difference in skill; it has to do with unconscious sexist biases. The solution here is fairly clear, and it’s what they’ve done in symphony orchestras — you have men and women audition behind a screen. Once you do that, the problem disappears.

So maybe a conclusion is we need to think more about the fact that this happens so we can put the screen up when it’s called for.

Yes, exactly. But in some cases, you choose not to put a screen up. One could have a museum and decide not to tell anybody where the paintings came from, but I don’t think that’s the right way to do things. I think it’s worthwhile knowing whether it’s a Chagall or a Picasso or whoever. Now, people might disagree. But in any case, we’re smart enough that if we find some sort of influence morally troubling we can work to make this influence go away.

Was there anything that you wanted to talk about, that you really wanted to get across that didn’t make it into the talk?

I think the one thing that I wish I could have discussed is that the depth of pleasure is a good thing. It makes it possible to get pleasure from art. It makes it possible to enjoy fiction, which is a topic I didn’t touch on at all in my talk. I think it enhances the pleasures of sex, the pleasures of food, the pleasures of music.

I think that the presence of essentialism in humans and the absence of it in other creatures is something that really matters. The life of a chimp, for instance, is much less pleasurable than a human’s can be, because a chimp can’t appreciate things in an essentialist sort of way. This is the good news. The bad news is that humans can experience miseries that no other animal can appreciate.

Watch Paul’s TED Talk, The origins of pleasure. This piece was originally published on the TED Blog in July 2011.

Featured image courtesy Stocksy.