Questionnaire

Let’s say your favorite wine is an Alexander Valley cabernet. Why do you enjoy it so much? A wine expert might cite its rich texture, hints of cherry and floral aroma. The casual drinker might say he or she just likes its taste. And both are probably wrong, or at least deceiving themselves.

What you like about the wine is something that goes deeper than either its objective descriptions or subjective taste — you like the wine’s essence, says Paul Bloom, PhD, the Yale developmental psychologist who studies why we like the things we do. His latest book, “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like” (W.W. Norton, 2010), argues that pleasure is intimately connected to the theory of essentialism — the notion that what really matters to us about an object, activity or person isn’t what it looks like or its properties, but something deep and invisible about it. Pleasure, it would seem, is a byproduct of essentialism, Bloom says. The value we assign consumer products is largely based on something deeper than just the way they look or fit or feel. We consider their potentials as status symbols, their individual histories, how much we assume other people think they are worth and so on — and from these hidden properties, we derive pleasure.

Which isn’t to say your tastes aren’t connected to material concerns. If your waiter brought you a wine and told you it was $50 a glass, and brought the same wine to another customer and told her it was $1 a glass, you might sip it merrily while she spits it out. The pleasure we take in wine and everything else is strongly influenced by where we think it came from, how much we think it costs and what its purpose is.

That’s essentialism, Bloom says, and it underscores why we prefer different foods, works of art and people. Everyone, he posits, has his or her own unique emotions, memories and perceptions that endear them to these things.

Bloom spoke to the Monitor about what the latest science can tell us about pleasure and why we humans find it in the strangest things.

Why is it important to study pleasure?

The positive experiences we get from art, sex and food are important in at least two ways. One way is that no theory of human psychology would be complete without it. You couldn’t imagine a theory of human psychology that had nothing to say about what we like in other people or what we like to eat or listen to. Pleasure is intimately tied to notions like motivation or drive. It’s also in some sense the most personally relevant aspect of psychology. When people are interested in what we’ve learned through the science of the mind, a very reasonable question is, “What do people like, and how can we enhance the pleasures of everyday life?”

What’s surprised you the most about your studies of pleasure?

My research started off looking at artwork and the case of everyday celebrity objects. I argued that your beliefs about how something came into being and who it was in contact with affects your experience of it. At some level, it’s not so surprising. If you ask people, “What would you rather have, a Chagall or a copy of a Chagall?” people say the original. But working out the details of why this is struck me as really interesting. What really surprised me was that even for pleasures that seem incredibly simple and primitive — like the taste of meat or sexual arousal — that these are also affected by essentialist beliefs.

Why do we derive pleasure from imaginary things?

I think one-half of the story is that imaginary pleasure is parasitic on real pleasure — if you like to look at something in the real world, you’ll also like to look at it in a movie. If you enjoy funny people interacting in the real world, you’ll enjoy funny people interacting in a show like “The Office.”

The other half of the story I think is more surprising, which is about how fiction and real life are different. And one of the ways they are different is that because you know fiction is not real, it’s safe. It gives you the opportunity for a form of play or practice. When you watch a horror movie, you can see horrible situations and imagine how you’d deal with them. I think that explains, in part, why we often seek out aversive experiences in imagination that we never would in reality. I think the best writers and directors know this, too, in sort of an implicit way, and create situations that we wouldn’t want to experience in the real world, but are deeply appealing to us in a fictional one.

Can we harness pleasure to help solve world problems?

There are often common-sense ways to exploit the psychology of pleasure. Some of them are screamingly obvious, like providing inducements: You try to link up things that people want to do with things that are already pleasurable, like hosting a dinner party for charity.

But on the other hand, people are not infinitely malleable. There’s sort of an Orwellian fantasy that you can manipulate people’s minds to take pleasure in things you want them to and not in other things, and people are not quite like that. There are all these movements, for example, trying to get people not to take pleasure in sex. And it’s very difficult. People like having sex, no matter how much you tell them they shouldn’t like it. There’s a human nature you’re often pressing against.

Your book mentions the human drive for sex as the basis for many pleasures. Is it really as simple as deriving pleasure from whatever helps us pass on our genes?

Our sexual pleasures seem to be related to natural selection in somewhat surprising ways. For instance, I think some of the attraction we have to people who are wonderful performers, such as artists and musicians, relates to our desire to find people who are worthy friends, allies and mates. But at the same time, there’s something uniquely human about pleasure, and something that’s not an adaptation in any sense. There’s no adaptive advantage to preferring a sweater owned by a famous person to any normal sweater, but we think that way because when we think about sweaters or anything else, we apply our essentialist way of looking at the world.

What mysteries about pleasure remain?

There’s a lot more to be said about the pleasure we get from stories and imagined experiences. For instance, I don’t think people have adequately explored to what extent is the pleasure in stories an evolved adaptation or an accidental byproduct. Then there’s a lot to be said about the pleasure of religion. Most humans are religious and like being religious. They get pleasure from religious rituals and practices, and I’m really interested in why.

The final thing, which I’m often asked about — and I have to admit that I don’t know — is why people have unusual pleasures. Sexual fetishes to me are a huge puzzle. There’s also great individual variation in pleasure, from the foods we like to eat to the movies we like to see, and this variation is a wonderful topic for further research.

So how can your theories about pleasure help us have more of it?

I think the big lesson from my book which could affect people’s lives is that, in a very strong way, what you think of something affects the pleasure you get from it. You can get more pleasure out of everyday life by manipulating and enhancing your understanding. The trick to getting more pleasure out of wine isn’t to buy more expensive wine, it’s to learn more about wine. The trick to enjoying music more is to understand music. Someone who knows a lot about classical music can appreciate it at a different level. And so on and so forth. It suggests there’s an intimate connection between pleasure and knowledge that we can use to enhance our lives.