TED Radio Hour: Paul Bloom: What Do We Value Most? Why do we like an original painting more than a forgery? Paul Bloom argues that humans are essentialists – that our beliefs about the history of an object change how we experience it, not just as an illusion, but a deep feature of what pleasure (and pain) is.

Paul Bloom: What Do We Value Most?

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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart.


STEWART: Here's a recording of a musician in a subway station.


STEWART: To set the scene, he's a youngish man with his violin case open at his feet. Commuters are rushing by. What do you think? Would you drop a quarter in his case?

OK, what if I told you that this Bach piece is considered one of the most challenging ever written for violin?


STEWART: Then would you stop and listen for a minute? Maybe drop in a dollar?

Now, what if I told you the performer is Joshua Bell, a violin virtuoso who's recorded over 30 CDs, performed at the White House, and was named Classical Musician of the Year by Billboard Magazine? That day, he looked like an ordinary street musician.


PAUL BLOOM: The question is how much would people like Joshua Bell, the music of Joshua Bell, if they didn't know they were listening to Joshua Bell?

STEWART: It was all an experiment by the Washington Post to answer that question. Well, the answer? Bell made about 32 bucks and was mostly ignored by passers-by.


BLOOM: Apparently, to really enjoy the music of Joshua Bell, you have to know you're listening to Joshua Bell.

STEWART: That's psychologist Paul Bloom, from his 2011 TED Talk. Bloom studies the tricks our minds play to determine why we like some things more than others, even if they are essentially the same thing. Like a glass of wine, a painting, or the music of a street performer. We'll talk to professor Bloom in a moment but first, here's the beginning of his TED Talk. He tells a story of an unusual and terrible man.


BLOOM: This is Hermann Goering. Goering was Hitler's second-in-command in World War II, his designated successor. And like Hitler, Goering fancied himself a collector of art. He went through Europe through World War II stealing, extorting and occasionally buying various paintings for his collection. And what he really wanted was something by Vermeer. Hitler had two of them, and he didn't have any,

So he finally found an art dealer, a Dutch art dealer named Han van Meegeren, who sold him a wonderful Vermeer for the cost of what would now be $10 million, and it was his favorite artwork ever.

World War II came to an end, and Goering was captured, tried at Nuremburg and ultimately, sentenced to death. Then the Allied Forces went through his collections and found the paintings, and went after the people who sold it to him. And, at some point, the Dutch police came in Amsterdam and arrested van Meegeren. Van Meegeren was charged with the crime of treason, which is itself punishable by death.

Six weeks into his prison sentence, van Meegeren confessed, but he didn't confess to treason. He said, I did not sell a great masterpiece to that Nazi. I painted it myself. I'm a forger.

Nobody - now, nobody believed him and he said, I'll prove it. Bring me a canvas and some paint, and I will paint a Vermeer much better than I sold that disgusting Nazi. I also need alcohol and morphine, because it's the only way I can work.

So they brought him - and he painted a beautiful Vermeer, and then the charges of treason were dropped. He had a lesser charge of forgery, got a year sentence, and died a hero to the Dutch people. There's a lot more to be said about van Meegeren, but I want to turn now to Goering, who's pictured here being interrogated at Nuremburg.

Now, Goering was, by all accounts, a terrible man. Even for a Nazi, he was a terrible man. His American interrogators described him as an amicable psychopath. But you could feel sympathy for the reaction he had when he was told that his favorite painting was actually a forgery. According to his biographer, he looked as if for the first time, he had discovered there was evil on the earth.

STEWART: So we have here a Nazi who, upon finding out his painting isn't real, looked as if for the first time, he'd discovered there was evil in the world - one of the best laugh lines ever at a TED Talk - but true. Paul, what does this tell us? What do we learn from this Goering tale?

BLOOM: Well, our response to forgeries is a huge puzzle. You might think that the pleasure you get from a painting depends on its color and its shape and its pattern, what it looks like. And if that's right, then it shouldn't matter whether it's an original or a forgery, shouldn't matter at all who created it. But the mind doesn't work that way. It matters to all of us.

In my own work I find, even for young children, it matters where the painting came from, who made it. And I think that tells us something interesting about what we like. I think it suggests that when it comes to a pleasure like the pleasure we get from paintings, we're exquisitely sensitive to their origin, to who made it, to how it was made.

And this suggests that artistic pleasure isn't a simple sensory matter. It's a highly intellectual matter, and I think it's a nice case study of an argument I try to make, which is that we're natural-born essentialists.

STEWART: Will you please define essentialism for me?

BLOOM: Essentialism is the idea that there is more to an object than its physical structure and this more-ness, this essence, is what matters. So the physical features of a painting may be its color and its shape and its size, but the essence of the painting is its invisible history that gave rise to it.

For a glass of wine, the physical properties are its chemical structures, which the tongue and the nose respond to. But its essence is its origin - it's where it came from, who made it.

STEWART: One of the best experiments - or I say it's the best experiment, I guess, for the participants - was the wine experiment.


BLOOM: How do you get adults to really enjoy wine? It's very simple. Pour it from an expensive bottle. There are now dozens, perhaps hundreds, of studies showing that if you believe you're drinking the expensive stuff, it tastes better to you. This was recently done with a neuroscientific twist. They get people in an FMRI scanner and, while they're lying there, through a tube they get to sip wine. In front of them, on a screen, is information about the wine.

Everybody, of course, drinks exactly the same wine, but if you believe you're drinking expensive stuff, parts of the brain associated with pleasure and reward light up like a Christmas tree. It's not just then you say it's more pleasurable, you say you like it more. You really experience it in a different way.

STEWART: The wine example is so interesting. It brought to mind the Two Buck Chuck phenomenon. It's a wine that was at Trader Joe's, and it was a - basically a cheap wine that wasn't sold like a cheap wine, because it was pretty good. And I wondered if any reality can jog your original notion of something?

BLOOM: So the Two Buck Chuck story is interesting in a couple of ways. So one thing is, it points out that it's not as simple as the more something costs, the more pleasure you get from it. People are complicated, and there are some cases where things will flip around. Often, your essentialist view - the way that you think things should be - and your perceptual experience will clash.

In some cases, we really can override it - or at least, we can in some way influence our essentialist verdict. We could say look, that wine is really cheap but damn, it's good. Or conversely, that wine is hugely expensive, but it's very disappointing. We're capable of doing that.

But I would suggest that we're always swayed by history. The fact that Two Buck Chuck is two buck will make it taste less good once you know what it is than if you believed it was Two Hundred Buck Chuck.

STEWART: I'm speaking with Paul Bloom. He's a professor of cognitive psychology at Yale University, and he's sharing with us some of the science behind the particular bug in our brain that affects how we enjoy pleasure.

Paul, in your TED Talk you highlight the role that celebrity plays in the history of an object. Let's listen.


BLOOM: So in one of our experiments, we asked people to name a famous person who they adored, a living person they adored. So one answer was George Clooney. Then we asked them, how much would you pay for George Clooney's sweater? And the answer is a fair amount - more than you would pay for a brand-new sweater, or a sweater owned by somebody who you didn't adore.

Then we asked other groups of subjects - we gave them different restrictions and different conditions. So for instance, we told some people look, you can buy the sweater but you can't tell anybody you own it, and you can't re-sell it. That drops the value a bit, suggesting that that's one reason why we like it. But what really causes an effect is you tell people look, you could re-sell it, you could boast about it but before it gets to you, it's thoroughly washed. That causes a huge drop in the value.

As my wife put it, you've washed away the Clooney cooties.

STEWART: So once the history of something is gone - washed away literally, in this case - will our minds ever allow us to enjoy the object again with the same fervor and excitement?

BLOOM: You could enjoy the object again. You might even enjoy it even more, but you'll have to enjoy it for different reasons. You may enjoy it because it develops another history - a history of being owned by a celebrity washes off, but it develops a great personal significance. In some way, that could add a different sort of value to it.

The case of forgery is an interesting one. So the van Meegeren forgery that Goering got sucked in by is actually now quite a famous object in and of itself. And there are some rare and interesting cases where we discover things are not what they appear to be but later on, they get their own value, maybe in part because of their importance and significance in having fooled us.

STEWART: So much of what we've been talking about are positive associations with something - a sweater of a celebrity, maybe you have a Broadway ticket from the premiere where the big star was. What happens when the object has importance but the association is negative? Perhaps the coat you were wearing when you were in the World Trade Center, and you escaped, on September 11. Does it work the same way?

BLOOM: There, it's complicated. Part of the motivation for our sweater study was actually, previous work by Paul Rossen (ph), where he asked people if they wanted to wear the sweater of Adolf Hitler or, you know, put on Jeffrey Dahmer's sweatpants, that sort of thing; or touch objects, make contact with objects that are associated with notorious and terrible people.

STEWART: I just got creeped out thinking ....


STEWART: ... about that.

BLOOM: And people are. He finds that people say, I'd rather not. But I think the value is very different, then, for George Clooney's sweater. For George Clooney's sweater, the value is from the contact. For something like Hitler's sweater, I think the value is the notoriety. And we have some evidence for this, so in the same studies we tested for the George Clooney sweater effect, we also asked about Bernie Madoff's sweater.

Now there, the results turned out differently. Some people wouldn't pay anything for it, they wouldn't want it. They were like you, repulsed by it. But others would pay a lot for it. But when we probed them, the reason why they would pay a lot for it wasn't physical contact - they didn't mind if it was washed - it was being able to resell it, and being able to boast about it.

STEWART: Paul, in your talk, you also use as an example the case of Marla Olmstead. Explain to folks listening to this show what happened with Marla Olmstead.

BLOOM: So Marla Olmstead is a young artist who paints in a very abstract style, and her work got a huge amount of attention, was sold for, you know, considerable sums...

STEWART: When you say young, you mean...

BLOOM: I mean, young. That's the trick; she was 3 years old.


BLOOM: The interesting point about Marla Olmstead is her family made the mistake of inviting the television program "60 Minutes II" into their house to film her painting, and they then reported that her father was coaching her. When this came out on television, the value of her art dropped to nothing. It was the same art physically, but the history had changed.

BLOOM: There's a lovely documentary on this and at the end, there is a town meeting. And a man who's very involved in the selling of art says, this is ridiculous. Why should it make a difference? If you liked the art before, you should like it now. But the producer-director of the documentary stood up and said something which I think is exactly right. He said, look, when you buy art, you're buying a story. When you appreciate art, you're appreciating a story, and the story had changed.

Before the show came out, people thought they were getting one thing; after the show came out, they thought they were getting another thing. And it made a difference.

STEWART: You, as a scientist, what do you see in this story?

BLOOM: I see it as a demonstration of something we could see in the laboratory - and we see in many other cases - which is that when shown an object, or given a food, or shown a face, people's assessment of it - how much they like it, how valuable it is - is deeply affected by what you tell them about it.

We find that even children will assess art differently if they think it was made by one person versus by another. We find that adults are profoundly affected when seeing the same artwork, whether it was painted by - as an original, as a forgery. When seeing a sculpture, it matters to them whether the artist touched it or used tools on it.

There's dozens, probably hundreds, of demonstrations that for something as simple as a painting or a very simple - like, a line drawing, what you think of it is influenced by the circumstances. And the Marla Olmstead case, I think, is a dramatic, real-world illustration of that.

STEWART: It makes me wonder if you can teach a child good taste, what to find pleasurable. Please don't find that pink flamingo on the lawn. Instead, wouldn't it be lovely to have this Miro print in your room?

BLOOM: We know you can do that. We know that because pleasure develops, tastes develop, and tastes develop in part because of experience. And a parent, for instance, could give their child different experiences. So one example of this is classical music.

For a lot of classical music, nobody likes it at the beginning. But you come to like it, you come to appreciate it as you understand more about it. And I think that speaks to a moral I didn't emphasize enough in my TED Talk, and I'm glad to have the chance to talk about it now - which is a lot of people think of this as a glitch, as sort of a faulty system.

If we were perfect beings, we wouldn't be influenced by all of this other information. But I don't view it that way at all. And I think in general, the best demonstration that these aren't mistakes is that - what it is to have a good sense of pleasure, what it is to be an expert, to be a mature individual, is actually to have a lot of knowledge and understanding.

In the real world, being sensitive to these considerations is actually very smart.

STEWART: You'll have more pleasure in your life.

BLOOM: You will have more pleasure in your life. I'm very much of a professor, so my advice - people sometimes - since I wrote a book on it and gave the TED Talk, people sometimes ask, how do you get more pleasure out of life? And my answer is extremely pedantic. It's study more. Anything that you don't understand, unless it's a sugar doughnut, is really going to be - sort of say, I don't get it. So that the key to enjoying wine isn't just to guzzle out a real expensive wine. It's to learn about wine. Music, learn about music, and so on.

STEWART: Art, art history.

BLOOM: Exactly. Art history is basically a mechanism for enhancing artistic pleasure. The more you know about it, the more you'll like.

STEWART: Paul Bloom is a professor at Yale. He got his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from MIT. Paul, thank you so much for being with us.

BLOOM: Thank you so much for having me on.

STEWART: The film professor Bloom mentions is called "My Kid Could Paint That," and it shows a painful example of our ability to assign value to something and then immediately de-value it. In this case, it was a little girl's art.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The paintings are unbelievable. Even if a three or four-year-old didn't do them, you'd like them.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The fact that she is four makes it really incredible.


STEWART: Of course, we know now that it does matter whether a four year old created those abstract works. It certainly mattered to the film's director, Amir Bar-Lev.

AMIR BAR-LEV: I would hear, at every Q&A I did, who cares if the dad did them? Isn't it the same exact painting, whether the dad did it or not? And, you know, my answer was always, no, it's not the same painting. The story of a piece of art is part of what people are buying into. It illuminated a lot in terms of the story and I think that we don't give enough credit to how important story is in our lives.

Story is actually more important than actually, like, well-being in some ways. Like, I mean, what's that "Man's Search for Meaning", Viktor Frankl. He talks about how the people in concentration camps, if they couldn't make meaning of their life, that was really the death of them. It was more important than anything in terms of survival. And that's an extreme case, obviously, but I think that people don't give enough credit to how important story is in giving us pleasure and in giving us meaning.

STEWART: Amir Bar-Lev directed the 2007 film "My Kid Could Paint That." You can find out more about the film and more about Paul Bloom at our website, ted.npr.org.

Coming up next on the program, the peculiar signals our brains send to keep us happy when we're in it for the long haul.


DAN GILBERT: I mean, you go out on a date with a guy and he picks his nose, you don't go out on another date. You're married to a guy and he picks his nose, you know, he has a heart of gold, don't touch the fruitcake, right? You find a way to be happy with what's happening.

STEWART: Stay tuned.

This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.

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