Fragments from an interview with Paul Bloom, American psychologist and author of: “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like” by Agnieszka Jucewicz. The original appeared in Polish in the weekly "Wysokie Obcasy" in June 2018.
Agnieszka Jucewicz: Why do we need pleasure in our life?
Paul Bloom: From an evolutionary point of view, pleasure is the carrot that drives us toward reproductively useful activities. If we didn’t enjoy food, we wouldn’t eat, or if we didn’t like sex, we wouldn’t procreate.
But it goes way beyond our need for survival. Although we share these two primal biological functions with animals, we interpret them differently. We’re the only species influenced by our knowledge about the meal: Where did it come from? What is it made of? Was it ethically sourced? Sex for us is not only a matter of reproduction, but an intimate physical connection between two people intended to provide mutual satisfaction. Pleasure has a deeper meaning for humans.
AJ: What do you mean by that?
What we enjoy doesn’t depend solely on our senses but also on our beliefs. For example, if you’re convinced that the wine you’re drinking was expensive, you’ll enjoy it more. Or if you find out that your favourite meal was actually cooked by someone you dislike, it probably won’t taste as good. When it comes to art, we respond to its origin: who was the artist? what’s the story behind their work? what do others think of it? That’s why, for some people, it’s so crucial to have an original piece, not a reproduction.
AJ: Finding out that our original painting is, in fact, a forgery might be shocking, too.
Indeed. The story about Hermann Göring is a perfect example: Göring, apart from being a Nazi officer and a monstrous man, was also a great art connoisseur. During the Second World War he managed to extort, steal or illegally buy over a hundred valuable paintings. His favourite, and most expensive piece, was the original “Jesus and the the Adultress” by Johanness Vermeer which Göring bought from a Dutch art collector, Han van Meegeren.
After the war, when Göring was in prison waiting for his execution, his private collection was discovered and van Meeregen arrested for treason. Six weeks into his prison sentence, the collector confessed that the artwork he sold to Göring was not an original, but only a copy which von Meeregan had painted himself. When the Nazi officer was informed that his beloved painting was in fact a forgery, according to his biographer: “he looked as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world”. This might be a controversial example, but it shows that the pleasure we draw from art very often depends on its creator, and that if our conviction about its origin turns out to be false, our joy fades.
It works both ways as well, the realization that one of our possessions is more valuable than we thought increases our satisfaction, and makes us happier.
AJ: Sounds a bit like snobbery.
Sometimes it is. But the same mechanism applies to objects of sentimental value. For instance, I have a few “masterpieces” created by my sons when they were children. No one would pay me half a penny for them, but to me, they are priceless and losing them would be truly upsetting.
AJ: What is “essentialism”?
It’s one of the cognitive theories that underlies our understanding of the physical and social world.
According to essentialism, what matters most is not the object as it appears to our senses, but what lies beneath its basic properties, what we believe the object really is. It has a great influence on our feeling of pleasure.
This hidden “essence” can relate to the object’s history, its creator, the first owner, even a person who used it or happened to touch it.
AJ: Hence the auctions of articles formerly belonging to public figures or celebrities?
Exactly! These are not just some ordinary items anymore -- by buying them, we can get close to a famous person’s "essence". In one of our experiments at Yale University, we asked people how much they would pay for George Clooney’s sweater. As it turned out -- quite a lot. Then we changed the rules and told them that before the sweater got to them, it would be thoroughly washed. The value of the offers dropped by 30%. Nobody wanted the washed sweater.
AJ: Was it about the smell?
In my opinion, it is something more than that. It was as if a tiny part of George Clooney had stayed within the fibres of that sweater. Truly fascinating! What’s even more interesting, when we asked people why it mattered so much, they couldn’t answer. They didn’t know.
AJ: Is what we enjoy affected by our culture?
In every part of the world people appreciate food, music or art -- it’s a universal appreciation. But culture determines what kind of cuisine or artwork we find delicious or valuable and beautiful. That’s why some of us fancy kimchi, while others can’t live without beef steaks.
Where I come from, the high price of an item automatically increases the amount of pleasure drawn from possessing it. But I also know plenty of people who enjoy sales. In the western world, knowledge about the artwork’s creator is pretty essential. But in other places, it could be the materials or the crafting process that really matters.
AJ: Isn’t human pleasure also influenced by the times we live in?
Absolutely. Look at contemporary art -- people admire it, identify with an artist and appreciate their talent and this is often reflected in the tremendously high market value of some contemporary works. Today anything can be a masterpiece: a plain white canvas or an undone bed. But if we showed this “piece of art” to someone living back in the Renaissance, they would burst out laughing. Tastes, preferences, even cultures change with time, but our need for pleasure never ceases.
Why do some of us enjoy looking at oil paintings, or others love being close to nature while someone else spends hours playing video games? No one really knows. I guess the answer is: people are just different.
It’s partly influenced by the culture but our personality, age and life experiences also play a vital role. Some of our tastes are established early in development -- late teens, early twenties -- not only because that’s when our brains are highly receptive but also because we use music, films and literature to bond with other people, affiliate ourselves with a certain social group and to construct our own identity -- to find out who we are. I’m over fifty now and there are a few young bands that I find pleasing, but I also must admit that nothing beats Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, which I’ve been listening to since I was a teenager.
AJ: Does nostalgia enrich our pleasure?
Definitely. Pleasure is a vast and diverse subject.
We haven’t touched upon its moral aspect yet, but it’s worth mentioning that people distinguish between the “safe” righteous pleasures and the forbidden ones.
Not to mention the less obvious sources of enjoyment, like pain, sadness or fear.
AJ: What’s so pleasurable about fear?
One of the theories says that as a species, we evolved to explore and try new things. And I think that one of the reasons people enjoy horror films is because they allow us to experience highly dangerous situations in a safe atmosphere. We like zombie movies not because we’re preparing for the invasion of the dead (that's a highly unlikely event) but because we want to learn about dealing with potential tragedies that may happen later in life.
AJ: A lot of people hate horror movies.
That’s true. But there are different ways to prepare for the worst. Some people enjoy films about death and grief, others prefer heartbreaking stories, and even some who constantly listen to depressing songs.
For some of us a vicarious experience is not enough and instead of watching a boxing match, they put on the gloves and join a boxing gym. Or they go one step further and engage in more painful and humiliating acts, such as sadomasochistic practices. There’s one common aspect of all these activities: control. People who decide to participate in them are always in charge of the situation. Every sadomasochistic act involves a safety mechanism called a “safe word”. It’s a previously agreed-upon word allowing the person experiencing pain to stop the interaction when the pain gets too severe. As we can see, even the most unpleasant things in life can become enjoyable as long as we have them under our control.
AJ: You mention in your book that most pleasures can be represented by an inverted “U”: when we first experience something, usually we don’t enjoy it, upon repeated exposure it starts giving us pleasure, but eventually it gets too cloying and unbearable.
There’s a grain of truth in the common hypothesis that we enjoy the music we hear the most, it’s called the “mere-exposure” effect. [When people develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar.] The only problem is that the too familiar can also often become unpleasant as we gradually get accustomed to it and find it tedious. Such as with a song that we enjoy every time it’s played on the radio until suddenly we love it so much that we start listening to it all day long and, soon enough, grow to hate it. If I wanted to sound cynical I would add that the inverted “U” scheme also relates to human relationships, but more often than not, it’s the other way around.
That’s why spouses in happy marriages tend to think that their husband or wife looks much better than anyone else thinks they do. They notice aspects of their partner that are invisible to everyone else.
AJ: Are there people unable to feel pleasure?
Yes, for example, people suffering from clinical depression. There’s nothing they look forward to, things that used to bring them joy don’t make them happy anymore -- they don’t appreciate food and take no pleasure in sex. But putting the depression aside -- we’re all different.
Some people are just naturally prone to experience more joy in life than others.
I’d like to stress that despite the fact that pleasure is the main subject of two of my publications, I don’t consider it to be the reason for our existence.
Delicious food, fine wine and great sex, although undoubtedly pleasant, are only brief and trivial delights. The true essence of life lies in meaningful relationships with other people, following our ambitions, and striving to make the world a better place. Sometimes even at the expense of pleasure.