Why Do We Like What We Like?

Why do we enjoy things like bitter foods and horror films? And are we the only species that likes art? Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University and author of How Pleasure Works, explains our penchant for art and why we find some unpleasant things so enjoyable.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY From NPR, I'm Ira Flatow.

In 2007, a scruffy guy in a baseball cap went down into a Washington, D.C., metro stop with a violin. He set up his case, put in a few coins and started to play. He fiddled for 45 minutes. Over 1,000 people passed him, and he earned 32 bucks. Not bad. That's about average for a subway musician.

But this guy was actually Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the world. A few nights before that subway performance, he had played Boston Symphony Hall, and you can bet he made a lot more than 32 bucks.

My next guest tells that story in his new book "How Pleasure Works," and he asks the question: why didn't people recognize his music as great art when Bell was playing in the subway? He says the reason why people enjoy things like music, art, sex and food are more perverse than we may think.

For example, why do we enjoy painful experiences like hot chili peppers, grueling exercises or getting in that last word?

Dr. Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale University and author of the book "How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like." He joins us from Yale in New Haven. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Bloom.

Dr. PAUL BLOOM (Yale University; Author): Thanks for having me on.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Let's start out with the story about Joshua Bell. What does that tell us about human pleasure?

Dr. BLOOM: It's a very nice illustration about a broader idea about pleasure, which is that when we get pleasure from something, it's not merely based on what we see or what we hear or what we feel. Rather, it's based on what we believe that thing to be.

And so, someone listening to the music of Joshua Bell is going to hear it differently and like it more if they believe it's from Joshua Bell. If you hear the same music and think it's from some scruffy, anonymous street performer, it doesn't sound so good.

And I think that's a more general fact about pleasure. I think wine doesn't taste as good if you don't know it's expensive or special wine. A painting is going to look different to you, and you're going to value it differently, if you don't - depending on who you think created it.

FLATOW: So you could see Jackson Pollock for the first time and say, what am I looking at here? And then say, oh, it's a Jackson Pollock, and now suddenly it looks much better.

Dr. BLOOM: Absolutely, yeah, and in fact, there's a lot of differences in what people think of a painting like Jackson Pollock, and Pollock's work appeals to people differently, I think depending on their understanding and their beliefs of what goes on when you create it.

If you think to create a painting like Pollock's requires huge technical virtuosity and imagination and creativity, you'll see it differently than someone who says, my kid could do that, and think it's some guy splashing paint onto a canvas.

And in general, when we look at a painting, you don't just look at the patterns of color and the shapes and the perceptual input. Rather, you try to reconstruct what went on its creation. What's its history? What's its real nature? And that determines how much you like it.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, talking with Paul Bloom, author of "How Pleasure Works." You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, or leave us your comments on our website at sciencefriday.com.

So what then makes something art? It just can't be accidentally done then, I guess is part of the definition of what people would think of what is a pleasurable art experience.

Dr. BLOOM: I think that's true, and it's not only true for experts or for art critics but even for young children. The psychologist Susan Gelman and I did a series of studies where we told children about things being created either on purpose, someone worked very hard to do them, or by accident.

And it's the very same object but if you think it's created on purpose, even a three-year-old is more likely to think of it or call it a statue or a painting than if it was created by accident.

For all of us, what makes something art is dependent on our beliefs about how it came into being, not merely its current nature, not merely what it looks like.

FLATOW: We also - we're also very obsessed these days with celebrity. If we think that a sweater has been touched by a famous person, we'll bid it way up, right, at auction because, oh, somebody wore that. It's a celebrity that wore that.

Dr. BLOOM: Absolutely, that adds huge value, and we've done some experiments on this. In one study with George Newman and Gil Diesendruck, I set up a situation where people would bid on sweaters on eBay. They would ask how much they'd pay for a sweater. And we'd ask them who their favorite celebrity was, who the most special person for them was.

And many of them said, for instance, George Clooney. So we said: How much would you pay for George Clooney's sweater? And the answer is they'd pay a lot. They'd pay more than for some anonymous sweater that looked just the same.

But then we asked, we put certain restrictions. So we said: How much would you pay for it if you couldn't tell anybody you owned it, and you couldn't resell it? Well, they'd still pay a lot, a little bit less, but they'd still pay a lot. Then we said: How much would you own if it was thoroughly washed before it got to you?

This causes a big drop in how much they would pay. It's like they still wanted the essence of George Clooney on the sweater. This invisible property of its history, who it had touched, is what gives it value.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. You talk about your theory of essentialism in your book. It's an interesting theory. Share that with us.

Dr. BLOOM: Well, this is actually how I came to write the book. I'm a developmental psychologist. I'm interested in how children make sense of the world. And one dominant idea in that field is that when children -and adults but even young children - name something or categorize something or make sense of something, they do so not just based on its physical properties, on its superficial features, but on its deeper nature, what they think is its essence.

And what it is to be in essence differs from category to category. For a tiger, its essence is its biological kind, maybe its DNA. For an artwork, its essence is its history, who created it and how.

And then the idea I began to explore is maybe essence affects not just how we think about things and talk about things, but how much we like things, and at a visceral level. How food tastes depends on what you think the food is. How sexually arousing a person is depends on who you think that person is. How much you like art depends on who you think created it and so on.

FLATOW: So speaking of sex, so you then fantasize of that person that you might just not be that into, as they say. It might be someone else, and that's why the pleasure may be better?

Dr. BLOOM: Absolutely. I think - and there are several experiments pointing this way, that when you look at a face, how - and a body - how pleasing you find that face and body isn't just dependent on the symmetry of the face or the waist-hip ratio, the musculature of the body. Rather, it's who you think that person is.

And so the same face and the same body could elicit a totally different response if you believe it to be one person rather than another.

There's all these porn sites, for instance, that boast about naked pictures of celebrities, some of them quite blurry and taken from telephoto lenses. And I think many people find them very arousing. But what if you were to discover it's not a celebrity at all but her sister, her twin or some other person? Suddenly, this makes a huge difference, though of course the image itself is unchanged.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Mario(ph) in Lebanon, Ohio. Hi, Mario.

MARIO (Caller): Yes, it's quite a pleasure to speak with Professor Bloom.

Dr. BLOOM: Thank you.

MARIO: I actually saw your course online, the Yale education, and I have recommended that to all my kids, and I look forward to reading your book.

I particularly liked when you sum up one of your lessons about that things are the way they are because they got that way. And I believe your findings here probably fit into that, as well.

And there's a great book out, which I recommend. It probably complements your book now. It's called "The Art Instinct" by Dennis Dutton. I don't know if you're familiar with it.

FLATOW: Mario, I'm running up against a break. So if you have a question, you'd better get it in.

MARIO: Sure. Well, it's just, my comment would be that I think we're in a great time because there's a convergence of multiple thoughts now, particularly with, like, behavioral economics. And you have economic signaling, which I believe kind of dovetails into what Professor Bloom has found.

I'm just curious if he's seen that, that he's at a great time now where multiple disciplines are coming to the same conclusions and reinforcing what he's finding?

Dr. BLOOM: Thanks, Mario. I'll quickly say two things. One is I agree with you. "The Art Instinct" by the philosopher Dennis Dutton is a wonderful book.

And second, this is a hugely exciting time for these topics because there's this great convergence across multiple fields of psychology, philosophy, evolutionary biology, behavioral economics. I entirely agree. This is a tremendously exciting time to be doing this research and thinking, asking these questions.

FLATOW: In movies and fiction, we get a lot of enjoyment out of scary things, unpleasant things: horror movies, tragedies. Where does that come from?

Dr. BLOOM: You know, that's a huge puzzle. It's - I have two chapters on the imagination, and one chapter says, look, a lot of the reason why we enjoy films and movies is because they mimic real life. They're reality-light. If you like something in the real world, you'll like it when somebody shows it to you on a screen.

But why do we like movies and TV programs and stories that are aversive, that have, you know, zombies and chainsaw-wielding psychopaths or the death of children, tragedy?

I think this falls under a general category of what Paul Rozin has described as benign masochism. We enjoy a little bit of pain, a little bit of suffering. And the reason for that, or one reason for that, is that we want to practice. We want to be able to deal with, to prepare ourselves for worst-case scenarios.

Now, in the real world, you can't do that because bad things are dangerous and unpleasant, and you don't want to rub against them, even sort of for preparation.

But what fiction lets you do is it carves out a safe place for you to explore the worst sort of things that could happen. And I think that that's what a horror movie is, and that's what a tragedy is. Part of the pleasure is saying: I'm going to try out these real bad things in this safe atmosphere and that will help me later on in life.

FLATOW: And the pleasure of eating really hot chili peppers?

Dr. BLOOM: You know, that I'll just guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BLOOM: Because, you know, that's not practice. You're not practicing for anything. The guess I'll give is it's like that joke about, you know, why is the guy banging his head on a lamppost? Because it feels so good when he stops.

And I think part of the pleasure of hot chili or a very hot bath or a sauna is that delicious moment when you escape from it. And that delicious moment of escaping, feeling the heat subside, feeling the bath reach its perfect temperature, a little bit cooler, and you start - is so pleasurable that it makes what goes before rewarding.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let me get a quick call in, a very quick call in here, from Charlie(ph) in Gardner, Kansas. Hi, Charlie.

CHARLIE (Caller): Hi there, long-time listener, first-time caller. I hate to disagree with your guest, but part of the hot pepper issue really is social one-upmanship. It's not the pleasure of the pain being gone as much as it is knowing that you are the person who can eat the hottest thing in the house and not flinch.

Dr. BLOOM: Charlie, I think you are at least partially right. I think a lot of these masochistic pleasures are social one-upmanship. People go to horror movies often with other - often teenage boys go to show that they can sort of out-macho and out-scare everybody else. I've seen wasabi-eating competitions among professors. And so, yeah, part of is it say look how tough I am. But I don't think that's the whole story.

We're doing some developmental work with young children, for instance, looking at when they seek out mildly aversive experiences, slightly scary movies, slightly sad stories. And our evidence here is preliminary. This is developing work.

But my bet is that even stripped from the social context, we have a desire to experience mild pain and that it serves purposes other than sort of self-aggrandizing and self-promotion.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more with Paul Bloom, author of "How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like." I hope you're not experiencing mild pain listening. So stay with us. We'll be right back, 1-800-989-8255. Tweet us @scifri or @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Or maybe mild pain is good. We'll see after this break. Stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Dr. Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale, and author of the book "How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like."

Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Harvey in Napa Valley. Hi, Harvey.

HARVEY (Caller): Hi there.

FLATOW: Hey. Go ahead.

HARVEY: My question is, what makes wine so pleasurable? What are the factors that you've found or think about makes wine so much fun?

FLATOW: Wine. Of course he's calling from Napa Valley.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BLOOM: Well, there's the obvious answer, which is true, which is what makes wine taste so good has to do with chemical...

HARVEY: What makes wine so pleasurable? What are the...

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Dr. BLOOM: Part of the answer is that it's based on the chemical properties, how it hits the tongue, how it smells. But there's a more interesting aspect of that answer, which is that part of what makes wine so pleasurable is what you think you're tasting.

And there's a lot of studies showing that the way to make wine taste a lot better is tell somebody it's very expensive. There's even been neuro-imaging studies where they put people into a scanner, and they're lying down having their brains scanned by an FMRI machine while a tube is in their mouth squirting wine.

As they're doing this, as they're sipping the wine, they see information as to how much the wine costs. It turns out if the very same wine goes in your mouth, but you think it's expensive, you get a far more pleasurable reaction, even at very low-level pleasure circuitry in the brain, than if you think you're drinking cheap swill.

So wine is a perfect case study of how what you think you're experiencing profoundly affects the experience itself.

FLATOW: And is part of then - of experiencing the pleasure fooling yourself into this, saying it's better than - you know, if you can fool yourself - can you knowingly fool yourself into it, saying hey, you know? If this is a chateaubriand instead of just my minute steak, I know it's going to taste better.

Dr. BLOOM: Well, in that case, you are fooling yourself. You're right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BLOOM: These experiments work by lying. They tell people, you know, that two things which really are the same are different. But for the most part, I want to defend the idea that this focus on history, on depth, on deeper facts, isn't irrational. It's not fooling yourself.

So another way of looking at it is you can enhance your pleasure simply by learning more about something, not telling yourself lies but learning more about wine - where it comes from, how it works.

Music will sound different the more you understand the music, and so this depth of pleasure, I think, you're right. It opens us up for deception, but it also opens us up to get far more pleasure out of life than we could have possibly had otherwise.

FLATOW: Well, you led into a topic I wanted to ask you about, and that is the pleasure of just learning about things. It's - you know, just knowing more. I mean, I find that extremely pleasurable, and I'm sure a lot of our listeners do, or else they wouldn't be tuned to this program.

Dr. BLOOM: There's a pleasure about learning things as individuals. There's a pleasure of science, of coming to know about the universe. And I think these are profoundly important pleasures.

And I think to some extent they are captured by evolutionary theory. So the starting point for a lot of our pleasures is that they're biological adaptations. It's why we like food. It's why we like sex. It's why we like the company of other people. And it's also why we have a curiosity.

It is very beneficial for an animal like we are to be motivated to explore the world and to get a flush of pleasure from discovering new things. And I think this shows up even in very young children, who have this great joy of exploration, this great curiosity. And it shows up in institutions like science, which are sort of social solutions to the problem of how do you maximize this pleasure of learning more.

FLATOW: Let's go to Elaine(ph) in Corvallis, Oregon. Hi, Elaine.

ELAINE (Caller): I just had an example of perception of things and how it might change. I had kept a lot of things from my kids from when they were babies and saved them for my grandchildren, and I had taken out a hooded bath towel to use on my grandchild.

And when I had looked at it over the years, I just had these warm, fuzzy, nostalgic feelings about it. When I went to actually put it on my grandchild and take her out of the tub, it was a scratchy, filthy rag.

And so in an instant, something I perceived as wonderfully nostalgic and precious became what it really was: a very old, old towel. And I just -I found that to be very interesting, that the same object, I had two views of it, you know, for 20 years, and it just changed in a heartbeat when I went to actually use it and realized this goes in a rag pile.

So just an interesting comment about our perception of things and how we look at them.

FLATOW: All right, Elaine, thanks for calling.

Dr. BLOOM: I think that's a lovely example. I think it's a lovely example. It's a lovely example about how what you think of something, its history, can color how you experience it. And (unintelligible) a huge conflict. You had thought of it one way, and then you realize that at some level it doesn't work that way.

And this is true for people too. So people we love look good to us. People we are in longstanding relationships with are more attractive to us. They look better to us simply by dint of our affection and our care for them.

FLATOW: Is there a love section that lights up in the brain?

Dr. BLOOM: As far as I know - I think it's always a mistake to say for any particular thing - love, disgust, morality - is there a center of the brain that does that, because there's always a cluster of things that respond.

On the other hand, there are neural systems that are specifically devoted to certain functions related to love. So for instance, for attachment. So we become attached to one another. A baby becomes attached to his or her mother. One adult becomes attached to another. You become attached to objects. And there does seem to be sort of dedicated parts of the brain that - for this attachment.

And this attachment also illustrates the essentialism, because you lock onto a specific object or specific person. You're not looking for something that just has that appearance. You want that individual. Children become attached to their teddy bears and won't accept substitutes. People become attached to other people and do not want the identical twin or the look-alike.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Hans(ph) in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Hi, Hans.

HANS (Caller): Hi. I wholeheartedly agree, to a certain extent, that, you know, obviously celebrity endorsements do something for the value of different products. But when it comes to things like nature, I personally value a lot more hiking out in the forest than I do walking through a well-trimmed garden.

I was wondering how you would comment on that perception, the difference, because you said, you know, the intent of creation behind something adds more value to it, but I prefer the untamed wilderness.

Dr. BLOOM: That's a nice point, and that illustrates how essentialism works in different ways for different sorts of things. So for human creation, the essence is its intentional history, where it came from. But as you point out, for nature, that's not the way it works at all.

For nature, there's sort of - there's the idea of connecting with the natural world separate from human intention. And in fact, your observation is nicely supported by a series of studies that find that when it comes to the pleasure of nature, when it comes to the happiness and the rush you get from the natural world, it's very hard to fake.

People, for instance, respond very differently from honestly looking out of a window towards a park and seeing real greenery than seeing a perfect, high-definition movie of that.

The high-definition movie might strike the eye in much the same way, but you want to know it's real. You want to know that it's real, honest-to-God nature and not someone's intentional creation. So there you're right. There, intention and the acts of people work against the pleasure that you're trying to get.

FLATOW: Is there a unique quality to something funny, pleasurable because it's funny, as opposed to other things?

Dr. BLOOM: I think there is. There's a lot of different theories as to what makes something funny, and a lot of scholars have worked very hard trying to figure out - and no one has yet succeeded.

But there does seem to be a unique reaction to humor. Obviously the unique response of laughter. I think humor is a uniquely social sort of pleasure. It is social in many ways.

It's social in the sense that the sort of things that are funny almost always involve people or connect to people, but it's also social in the sense that laughter brings people together and sometimes brings people together and excludes other people.

So laughter can be outrageously positive in that if you and I are laughing together at something, it really brings us together, and outrageously cruel in that if we're laughing at a third person, it can serve to exclude him or her in the most powerful ways.

FLATOW: Because laughter a lot of times involves - the punchline has an unexpected ending to it.

Dr. BLOOM: I think part of the sound of a laugh is your - is a sound of appreciation at the cleverness of somebody else. To laugh is always at some level to have met with somebody who, at least in that domain, is smarter than you, who gave you the answer you didn't expect, the step you didn't expect, and part of a laugh is an appreciation of that.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get one last call in here. Let's go to Jeff in Salt Lake. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. Two quick questions. One is: Doesn't culture or society tell us what is pleasurable in the sense of we're repeatedly told to defer pleasure for the better reward or joy in the long run versus instant gratification, and therefore pleasure is really a thought of what we're told will be pleasure?

And the second, maybe I'm ahead of myself, has to do - maybe it's masochism. But I remember when I started jogging, I heard an interview with Frank Shorter(ph), who said he felt pleasure, it felt good to him to run.

And being a beginning runner, I couldn't imagine this. Several years later, I found out, hey, he's right. This is amazing. And I'm going to check out so I can listen to your response.

FLATOW: OK. Thanks for calling, Jeff.

Prof. BLOOM: Well, I'll take those in reverse order. Again, the pleasure of pain is a great puzzle. And you're right, exercise is a wonderful example, where there's something so satisfactory about the pain we get sometimes from trying to accomplish something, training for a marathon. And if it was effortless, it was painless, I don't think we would get the same pleasure from it. I think that it illustrates that one critical ingredient here is control. So when it comes to pain, we could experience all sorts of pain - spicy foods, training for a marathon, a horror movie - but it's critical that we control the intensity of the pain. Pain is never pleasurable when it's out of your hands, when someone else is inflicting it. We are not wired up to enjoy pain under those circumstances.

The question about culture is a great one. Any theory of pleasure is going to have to include a powerful role of culture. But the way I see it is that this role is powerful but limited. We start off with an evolved set of pleasures. We like sex. We like food. We like music. We like artistic virtuosity. And we are essentialist towards these pleasures. What culture does is it works within the constraints of these innately prepared systems. So people everywhere like music. Culture will determine, to some extent, the sort of music you like. People everywhere like certain foods. Cultures will vary in the sort of foods that they offer.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BLOOM: But I think that the role of culture to human - that human similarities, human universals in the domain of pleasure, are far richer than many people think, that we really are not as different from one another as one might imagine when you - and when you look closely, you see people are surprisingly similar in all of these domains: food and...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BLOOM: ...sex and art and music and so on.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much, Paul, for taking time to be with us today.

Prof. BLOOM: Thank you so much for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Paul Bloom is author of "How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like." I recommend it. It's a very good read.

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