How Pleasure Works


in Books and literature, Geek stuff, Psychology, Science, Writing

After thoroughly enjoying his free psychology course, available on iTunes U, I was excited to read Yale professor Paul Bloom’s new book: How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. It was certainly very interesting. Though it may not quite have met my high expectations, the book certainly has a number of substantial strengths. It includes both original insights and a useful presentation of the research undertaken by others. Indeed, the book’s greatest strength is probably its accessibility. There is little jargon, terms are clearly defined, and good analogies and explanations are employed throughout.

Bloom’s main hypothesis is that people are ‘essentialists’ and that this has importance for what people enjoy. This concept has a bit of a Platonic flavour, as Bloom explains:

The main argument here is that pleasure is deep. What matters most is not the world as it appears to our senses. Rather, the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think that thing is. This is true for intellectual pleasures, such as the appreciation of paintings and stories, and also for pleasures that seem simpler, such as the satisfaction of hunger and lust.

Perhaps one reason why I found the book a touch disappointing is that this thesis seems uncontroversial to me. Bloom does bring up some interesting examples and related experiments, but never really sets out a credible alternative theory well distinguished from this ‘essentialist’ view. Perhaps his most interesting argument is that essentialism – the desire to understand the ‘real nature’ of things, and the related assumption that there is such a thing – is inherent, even in children, and not the product of socialization.

Bloom takes a thematic approach: discussing food, sex, objects with histories (like JFK’s tape measure), performance, imagination, safety and pain, and finally the respective appeal of science and religion. His discussions of imagination are one of the most interesting parts of the book, as the author teases apart the different ways in which imagination is useful and pleasant, as well as discussing the limitations it has (such as how we cannot surprise ourselves while daydreaming). His discussion of the importance of evolution to psychology, as well as the processes through which the mental life of children changes as they grow up, are also particularly worthwhile and interesting. While it is not a novel argument, Bloom also provides some nice illustrations of how the human mind evolved in a world very different from the one that now exists, with important consequences for individuals and society.

One thing that sticks out at times are little judgmental comments made by the author. They are all very justifiable, but they do stand out within a work that is largely a summary of scientific research, albeit one written in a manner intended to be accessible to non-expert audiences. For instance, Bloom repeatedly condemns the obsession people have with female virginity. He also talks about steroids in sports, the power of stories to inspire moral change, ‘evil’ in video games, the dangers of awe in relation to political figures, and ‘immoral’ pleasures. A few of Bloom’s claims also stand out as being unsubstantiated, particular several assertions he makes about non-human animals, without reference to either logical argument or empirical evidence to support them. All told, Bloom stresses strongly that humans are quite different from other animals, though he arguably fails to provide adequate evidence to make that claim convincing.

Another thing you won’t find in Bloom’s book is much concrete advice on how to live a happier life. If there is anything of that sort in the book, it is arguments that might make people feel less irrational for taking pleasure in things that are a bit unusual: whether it is collecting objects formerly owned by celebrities or paying somebody to tie you up and beat you.

To his credit, Bloom also considers the logical errors that can arise from the intuitive essentialism that people manifest. He argues that it contributes to some of the basic errors of logical deduction and probabilistic reasoning that people commonly make – and which are exploited equally by advertisers and despots. Bloom highlights how many of the aspects of our minds that evolved for certain purposes have ended up creating other social phenomena by accident, from obesity to paranoia about terrorism and serial killers.

While the book is full of interesting tidbits and pieces of information, the overall thesis is a bit of an overcautious one. Perhaps that is something to be expected from a scientist, given their hesitation to go beyond claims that can be clearly justified by the facts. Nonetheless, this book is a worthwhile discussion of the nature of human pleasure, from a scientific and psychological perspective. For anyone with an interest in seeing the topic treated in that manner, it is definitely worth a look.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan June 17, 2010 at 12:10 pm

I don’t understand – what is Platonic about Bloom’s understanding of pleasure? I’m not an expert, but the Stanford dictionary of philosophy suggests Plato’s view emphasizes the effect of the thing itself on our body, rather than our bodies anticipation of the thing’s effect:

“Plato….refined and generalized the current physiologically-influenced account of pleasure as restoration of bodily imbalance or deficiency, on the model of hunger and thirst, to make it instead the sensation, perception, or consciousness (all aisthêsis in Greek) of return from a (possibly unnoticed) state of deficiency into a naturally healthy state.[17]”

“A unified account of all pleasure was thus achieved, as awareness of processes of fulfilling very diverse needs, systematically accounting for both pleasure’s unity and diversity.”

Milan June 17, 2010 at 12:14 pm

I was not claiming that Bloom’s theory of pleasure is similar to Plato’s (which I know nothing about).

I was saying that Bloom’s theory of pleasure focused on invisible essences, in a manner reminiscent of Plato’s philosophy generally: i.e. the idea that objects can have essential properties not directly tied to their physical composition.

Tristan June 17, 2010 at 12:49 pm

I’m still confused – in the quote Bloom says “the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think that thing is”. My idea of something is not an “invisible essence”; it’s my perspective, my anticipation. In short – my desire. The “Platonic essences” of which you speak are emphatically not “my idea” but a perfect form which is the original cause and intentional object of my idea – an ideal idea “in the sky”, and my idea is true or false to the extent that it conforms with the ideal one.

Blooms view seems to be much closer to a kind of perspectivism which denies the explanatory value of “what is really happening” in favour of “how I experience what is happening”. If that is right, Bloom is much more existentialist than Platonic.

Milan June 17, 2010 at 1:01 pm


The argument isn’t very interesting.

Yes, people are the sort of creatures who get excited because they think they own JFKs tape measure, or think they just had sex with a virgin. Yes, people would often be upset to learn that the tape measure is just a generic model picked up at Home Depot, and that the so-called virgin was lying. Yes, it is possible to imagine creatures that wouldn’t care.

None of this seems to have much practical importance or interest.

Matt June 17, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Just for the record, I actually do own JFKs tape measure.

Tristan June 17, 2010 at 2:31 pm

I find Plato’s stance more plausible – people are not satisfied when their apparent desire is fulfilled, but when their actual desire is met. So, you might think you need X, but you actually need Y – achieving X might lead to some short term happiness, but real happiness will be attained when you attain Y.

Otherwise it becomes impossible to say someone might be wrong about their interests – this would make it impossible to ask for advice, or to critically assess another’s claims about what they want.

In other words, Plato’s conception of desire allows for the idea of the production of false desires, i.e. the main purpose of public relations. Bloom’s emphasis on “immediate pleasure” has the political implication of being uncritical with respect to people’s opinions about their own desires.

. June 18, 2010 at 4:09 pm
. June 18, 2010 at 4:35 pm

“The strength of your book is that you approach pleasure as we experience it, with its many contradictions. Why do we savor foods that burn the tongue? Much of your answer derives from a reasonably new movement in psychology, essentialism. That perspective takes into account the notion that humans go beyond thinking about qualities (like piquancy) to interacting with entities (like home cooking). We believe, as you put it, “that things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.”

You point readers toward essentialism by getting us to think about a person we adore and then to imagine someone with the same traits, an identical twin who resembles the inamorata in every measurable way. We would not love this second person the way we love our spouse or significant other. At the same time, if our subject is a heterosexual man and the clone is a woman, he might find sex with her kinkier than sex with the wife or girlfriend. You cite an Isaac Bashevis Singer play in which a fool from Chelm gets lost, stumbles back into his own village, sees his dull wife, and, thinking her a new acquaintance, becomes aroused.”

. June 29, 2010 at 2:04 pm

The best vacation ever
How should you spend your time off? Believe it or not, science has some answers.

Partly, these decisions are matters of taste. But there are also, it turns out, answers to be found in behavioral science, which increasingly is yielding insights that can help us make the most of our leisure time. Psychologists and economists have looked in some detail at vacations — what we want from them and what we actually get out of them. They have advice about what really matters, and it’s not necessarily what we would expect.

For example, how long we take off probably counts for less than we think, and in the aggregate, taking more short trips leaves us happier than taking a few long ones. We’re often happier planning a trip than actually taking it. And interrupting a vacation — far from being a nuisance — can make us enjoy it more. How a trip ends matters more than how it begins, who you’re with matters as much as where you go, and if you want to remember a vacation vividly, do something during it that you’ve never done before. And though it may feel unnecessary, it’s important to force yourself to actually take the time off in the first place — people, it turns out, are as prone to procrastinate when it comes to pleasurable

things like vacations as unpleasant ones like paperwork and visits to the dentist.

“How do we optimize our vacation?” asks Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University and the author of the new book “The Upside of Irrationality.” “There are three elements to it — anticipating, experiencing, and remembering. They’re not the same, and there are different ways to change each.”

. January 30, 2011 at 3:16 am

The Anti-Social Network
By helping other people look happy, Facebook is making us sad.
By Libby Copeland
Posted Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011, at 4:51 PM ET

There are countless ways to make yourself feel lousy. Here’s one more, according to research out of Stanford: Assume you’re alone in your unhappiness.

“Misery Has More Company Than People Think,” a paper in the January issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, draws on a series of studies examining how college students evaluate moods, both their own and those of their peers. Led by Alex Jordan, who at the time was a Ph.D. student in Stanford’s psychology department, the researchers found that their subjects consistently underestimated how dejected others were–and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result. Jordan got the idea for the inquiry after observing his friends’ reactions to Facebook: He noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others’ attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. “They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life,” he told me.

The human habit of overestimating other people’s happiness is nothing new, of course. Jordan points to a quote by Montesquieu: “If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.” But social networking may be making this tendency worse. Jordan’s research doesn’t look at Facebook explicitly, but if his conclusions are correct, it follows that the site would have a special power to make us sadder and lonelier. By showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people’s lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers, Facebook appears to exploit an Achilles’ heel of human nature. And women—an especially unhappy bunch of late—may be especially vulnerable to keeping up with what they imagine is the happiness of the Joneses.

. July 2, 2013 at 3:09 pm

These two academics—she teaches psychology at the University of British Columbia; he lectures on marketing at Harvard Business School—use an array of behavioural research to show that the most rewarding ways to spend money can be counterintuitive. Fantasies of great wealth often involve visions of fancy cars and palatial homes on remote bluffs. Yet satisfaction with these material purchases wears off fairly quickly. What was once exciting and new becomes old-hat; remorse creeps in. It is far better to spend money on experiences, say Ms Dunn and Mr Norton, like interesting trips, unique meals or even going to the cinema. These purchases often become more valuable with time—as stories or memories—particularly if they involve feeling more connected to others.

This slim volume is packed with tips to help wage slaves as well as lottery winners get the most “happiness bang for your buck”. It seems most people would be better off if they could shorten their commutes to work, spend more time with friends and family and less of it watching television (something the average American spends a whopping two months a year doing, and is hardly jollier for it). Buying gifts or giving to charity is often more pleasurable than purchasing things for oneself, and luxuries are most enjoyable when they are consumed sparingly. This is apparently the reason McDonald’s restricts the availability of its popular McRib—a marketing gimmick that has turned the pork sandwich into an object of obsession.

. October 7, 2013 at 2:34 pm

George MacKerron and Susana Mourato from University College London and the London School of Economics recently looked at the relationship between happiness and nature. They found that people are happier in all outdoor environments (except in fog or rain) than they are indoors. What makes them happiest is taking exercise or bird-watching by the sea or on a mountain with someone they like. Those seeking to cheer themselves up should avoid bare inland areas, suburbia and children.

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