Have you ever wondered why you take pleasure in the things you enjoy? Why do some of us love art, some of us enjoy a good horror movie, and others find bliss in nature? What does the psychology of pleasure tell us about human beings and even about the meaning of life?
In his critically acclaimed book How Pleasure Works, recently out in paperback, Paul Bloom offers a lively and thought-provoking tour of the science of pleasure, presenting some fascinating and controversial conclusions about why we like what we like.
Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale University and has written for The New York Times and the Atlantic, among other popular publications.
As part of our “Greater Good Podcast” series, he recently spoke with host Michael Bergeisen about what the science of pleasure can tell us about our sex lives, George Clooney’s clothing, why religion is an accident, and why doing good makes us feel good.
Below we present a condensed version of the discussion.
Michael Bergeisen: So why do we experience pleasure? Where does it come from and why does it exist?
Paul Bloom: Well, the argument I make in my book is that pleasure is to a tremendous degree influenced by what we think we’re experiencing—what we think an object is and where it came from. What we think we’re eating in the case of food, who we think we’re with in the case of sex, what we think we’re looking at in the case of art.
MB: In the book you discuss the idea of “essentialism” at length. What is essentialism?
PB: The argument that I make, and here I’m following many other people, is we don’t just make sense of the world in terms of the superficial, perceptual features of things—what they look like or feel like or taste like. Rather we believe that things have a deeper, underlying nature that makes them what they are.
What I do in this book is I expand this essentialist approach to pleasure. So our belief about essences not only explains how we talk about things and categorize them; it explains what we like.
For instance, it’s not just physical sensations that lead to sexual arousal; it’s whether you think you’re getting it from a man or a woman, a relative or a stranger, a 20 year old or a 50 year old. These facts can critically affect romantic desire and sexual desire.
MB: You also explain essentialism with other examples, such as the fact that people will pay lots of money for objects like a tape measure once owned by John. F. Kennedy or clothing formerly owned by celebrities like George Clooney. What does this tell us about essentialism and how pleasure works?
PB: In the case of sex, you’re aroused in different ways depending on who you believe you’re interacting with. The case of objects is that they can get different values depending on their history.
I can illustrate this in terms of an experiment I recently completed with some colleagues at Yale. What we did is we asked people how much they would pay for a sweater on eBay. They pay some amount, then we asked them, “How much would you pay for a sweater that was owned by someone who you really admired?”—for instance, the subject said he admired George Clooney, so we said, “How much would you pay for George Clooney’s sweater?”
And the object’s history matters: People would pay a lot more for George Clooney’s sweater, even if they were told that they couldn’t tell anybody it was George Clooney’s sweater.
But there’s a twist. For half of the subjects, we told them that before the sweater would get to them, it would be thoroughly washed and laundered. Under this condition, their desire for the sweater dropped. The amount that they would pay dropped. They want it with this essence of George Clooney still on it.
MB: Interesting. So, having looked at this subject very carefully, do you think that objects and people actually have an essence—a true hidden nature that can’t be observed directly—or is that just something we humans believe?
PB: It depends what you mean by “essence” or “nature.” In some cases, we’re exactly right to be essentialist. What it is to be gold doesn’t involve just being a certain color and texture, it involves a certain chemical structure. So sometimes essentialism is dead right, things really do have deeper essences.
On the other hand, essentialism is often dead wrong. The sweater that’s worn by George Clooney is no different physically than any other sweater. The tape measure owned by John F. Kennedy which one person paid $50,000 for is not physically different from any other tape measure. A Picasso might be perfectly indistinguishable from a forgery. When we value the Picasso 100 times more than we value the forgery, this is because of the object’s history. But if we believe that the objects themselves are materially different, that’s just mistaken.
MB: I’d like to shift gears a little bit and talk about the link between pleasure and empathy. What has your research suggested about that?
PB: Well, the connections come up with regard to a topic I’ve been working on a lot recently, which is the development of moral intuitions and moral beliefs in children and adults. This connects to pleasure in one specific way: We seem to take a lot of pleasure from doing good things.
So empathy can connect to pleasure in a couple of ways. One is through something called emotional contagion, where you can catch someone else’s emotion, like happiness, almost as if it were a disease—you can see that in how contagious laughter can be, and smiles are similarly contagious.
A different manifestation, though, is the relationship between getting pleasure and doing good things—helping people. We know that people who are very happy also tend to be the very same people who give a lot of their money and time to others.
Now there are a lot of ways to explains this. It might be that being nice makes you happy. It might be that being happy makes you nice. Or maybe a third factor causes both. But there’s definitely a relationship there.
On a more specific level, when you bring people into a lab, what you find is that acts of kindness—giving away money or being generous in a game—give people a rush. There’s sort of a real pleasure to doing a good thing. People also experience pleasure in acting morally in a way that’s not so positive, by punishing an evil-doer. If you cheat me and I have the opportunity to make you suffer—that’s a source of pleasure if anything is.
MB: So do you think there’s actually an evolutionary benefit to being kind—that it somehow helps perpetuate the species?
PB: I think it does, though I would put it in a more standard evolutionary biology kind of way, which is it helps perpetuate the genes. Look at the most primary case of kindness, which is a parent’s kindness and love toward a baby or child: Any hominid that doesn’t have this connection, their children would never survive very long. So there’s a strong evolutionary push for loving your kid.
More generally, there’s a strong evolutionary push for loving your kin, people who share your genes. You can extend that one step further, bringing in mechanisms of cooperation and reciprocal altruism, and argue that we are predisposed to be kind to people around us.
But I think that’s where it ends. I think our natural morality, our natural goodness, ends at what psychologists call the “in-group,” the people you’re around. I think your natural inclination toward strangers is to fear and hate them. The fact that many of us walk around and don’t hate strangers, don’t fear strangers, we in fact are often empathetic and altruistic toward strangers, is a bit of a mystery. I think it’s an accomplishment of culture, not a product of our biology.
MB: You also discuss awe, and you note that you think we’d be better off if we humans didn’t experience awe. Can you briefly describe awe—what it is and whether there is an evolutionary basis for it?
PB: Yeah, awe is difficult to describe, at least for me. [Greater Good Science Center Faculty Director] Dacher Keltner has done some wonderful work on it, he’s the world’s expert on awe. He’s done some lovely studies just trying to answer the questions of what it is, what elicits it. To put it crudely, it’s a take-your-breath-away experience: seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, hearing the Beatles, falling in love, seeing your child born—it brings you to your knees, it takes your breath away.
Then there’s the question of what it’s for—is it any good? And I part company with Dacher on the second question, because he’s very impressed with awe and the social benefits of it in bringing people together. He’s particularly focused on the awe that people can generate; an example he gives is the Dalai Lama, who often inspires awe. You’d want to follow him and follow his purpose.
I agree with Dacher up to a point—except when he thinks about the Dalai Lama, I think about Hitler, who was wonderful at generating awe. So I think awe is a tool that can be used by powerful people, and it can be used for great good, but I think more typically it’s used for great evil. If I could snap my fingers, and make the notion of awe go away, I would. That would mean we’re not quite as moved by the Dalai Lama, and maybe that’s too bad, but then again we’re not quite as moved by Hitler and Mussolini and Stalin, and that’s really good.
MB: Related to awe is the notion of transcendence, and you argue in your book that we humans have an impulse to the transcendent, stemming from our beliefs in essentialism. Can you talk a little more about that and tell us what that conclusion’s based on?
PB: The idea of essentialism is you go beyond the superficial and respond to its deeper nature. The claim I explore at the very end of my book is that this transcendent impulse, this desire to go beyond a manifest world, might play a role in religious practice and religious belief—it may be part of the explanation for why humans are universally drawn toward the religious and the spiritual, which is an energized attempt to go beyond the physical world and explore the transcendent nature of things.
Now there’s more than one way to do this. The dominant way in which this is expressed in humanity is as I said: religion and spirituality. But of course you could also do it through science. I think the impulse that drives science is very similar to the impulse that drives religion. In both cases, you’re trying to explore the deeper nature of things.
Now religion has certain advantages over science. It takes a huge amount of training and understanding to appreciate scientific insights, while religion is largely constructed so that pretty much anybody can enter into it and participate and start to feel the benefits. Also, science portrays a cold and bleak world; religion portrays a transcendence full of meaning and purpose.
The advantage to science, I think, is that it’s true—it gives you insights into the world that are useful and, more importantly, that are true. But I would say right now religion is a far more popular tool for transcendence than science ever will be.
MB: Well, would you say that there is an adaptationist benefit to religion and this impulse to transcendence? Does it help perpetuate the genes?
PB: I actually don’t think so. I think it’s an accident. I think religion is an accident and I think science is an accident. And I don’t mean this to disparage either one of them. I mean accident in the biological sense, in which it’s not an adaptation.
I don’t think we have religion or science because our ancestors who were predisposed in that way left more children than those who didn’t. I think what happened was we evolved some very powerful capacities for reasoning and deduction and essentialism and pleasure. And they mix together so that we’ve come across science, we’ve come across religion.
MB: But isn’t it striking that religion has been so ubiquitous in human history and is so persistent still? It sounds curious to describe that as an accident.
PB: I think you’re exactly right about how universal and powerful the religious impulse is. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily an adaptation. Look at other things, like the human desire for pornography, which is ubiquitous, universal, and very very powerful—but probably not an adaptation. Or take a more extreme example: back pain. I mean, back pain exists everywhere, in every culture when people get old enough, but it’s not for anything—it’s just what happens when you’re a creature like us with bodies like ours. I think religion and science are universal and powerful—at least religion is but I don’t think it necessarily has a function.
MB: So, in trying to understand pleasure, did you find that you gained any insight into how humans can lead happier, more meaningful lives?
PB: You know, I’m often asked that and I wonder about that—the actual utility of this research for day-to-day life. And I guess I have just one insight from this work, and that is this: Even for everyday pleasures—for the pleasures of eating, let’s say, or the pleasures of walking through nature, or the pleasures of being with other people—a lot of it is in your head, a lot more than you might think.
For instance, if you want to get more pleasure from wine, the trick isn’t to go to your liquor store and buy some of the most expensive wines. The trick is to learn more about wine. And the act of learning more about wine will lead you to experience it differently and take more pleasure from it. Similarly for music: Music sounds different the more you know about it.
So to some extent, the practical conclusion from my book is a professorial one: It’s arguing that you get more out of life when you study more.
MB: But is there a related notion that the degree to which you are attached to pleasures can ultimately lead to unhappiness?
PB: Well, that’s a deep question. And it connects to the broader fact that I think there’s a difference between pleasure, which is what we’ve been talking about, and happiness.
Pleasure, as I see it, is a short-term experience elicited by something in the world, like an object or a person or a food. Happiness is a more long-standing circumstance. And to some extent, part of leading a good life, leading a happy life, is denying yourself certain pleasures. If you eat whenever you’re hungry and whenever something looks good, you’ll become obese. If you yield to sexual desire whenever it comes across, you’ll either be in prison or, at the very least, not in a committed relationship. And so on and so forth. The problem of addiction can be seen as a problem of prioritizing pleasure over happiness.
So in the end, I think you’re exactly right. Almost paradoxically , one way to lead a good life, a happy life, and even a pleasurable life, is to deny yourself certain pleasures.