How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like

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Paul Bloom
280 pages | Buy this Book

Is there anyone who could resist a book about sex, food, art, and fun? Didn’t think so. This book is about all those things, but what turns it from a guilty pleasure into a guiltless one is its deep understanding of philosophy, developmental psychology, and evolutionary theory. Yes, it’s a science book, and a brainy one at that. But look! There’s an index entry for Jennifer Aniston! So don’t be scared.

 

What’s the Big Deal?

Bloom is the rare author who can rattle off references to Shakespeare, the Bhagavad-Gita, recipes from The Masochist’s Cookbook, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer without ever sounding like he’s trying too hard. Reading his book is like stargazing with your favorite cool professor while high. (Not that we’ve ever done such a thing, of course.) In the process, you might find yourself accepting Bloom’s rather radical-sounding thesis: “that humans start off with a fixed list of pleasures and we can’t add to that list” (page 7). Yes, “video games, cocaine, dildos, saunas, crossword puzzles, [and] reality television” are new inventions, but they’re really just variations on a theme. We like them because they tap into deeply ingrained psychological drives we’ve had for millions of years.

Buzz Rating: Rumble

You’d expect The Chronicle of Higher Education to feature a book like this, but Elle? Creative Loafing? Talk about a wide appeal. Also, the Times of London devoted 2,000 words to it—nearly twice the length it gave to a story about the prime minister and the BP oil spill. And now Slate, too, is jumping all over it.

One-Breath Author Bio

Bloom’s academic credentials are sterling: he’s a psychologist at Yale and the author or editor of four academic books, as well as the more lay-oriented Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human.

The Book, in His Words

“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 . . . For a painting, it matters who the artist was; for a story, it matters whether it is truth or fiction; for a steak, we care about what sort of animal it came from; for sex, we are strongly affected by who we think our sexual partner really is” (from the preface).

Judging by the Cover

Publishers need to find a fresh look for intellectual-catnip books like this: The “white background + sans serif font + arresting image” motif is getting a little tired. On the other hand, what an image! This oyster is just an oyster like a cigar is just a cigar. What’s the female equivalent of “phallic”?

Don’t Miss These Bits

1. Foodie, huh? If you’re one of those people who claims to choose food based solely on how good it tastes—not what it says about you or your wallet or your ethics—prepare yourself. Bloom picks apart that preconception with a fork and knife. It turns out that you probably like food just as much for its associations (caviar is expensive, organic food is virtuous) as you do for its chemical taste. On the mild end of the spectrum, there’s the fact that “children think milk and apples taste better if they’re taken out from McDonald’s bags” (page 45). On the considerably more disturbing end, there’s the case of cannibal Armin Meiwes, which Bloom describes with a dry tone that Hannibal Lecter would love: “Meiwes then chopped Brandes up and stored him in the freezer, next to some pizza. In the weeks that followed, he defrosted and cooked pieces of Brandes in olive oil and garlic, devouring about 44 pounds of him. He used his best cutlery, lighting some candles and accompanying his meals with a South African red” (page 27). Meiwes believed he was internalizing his victim’s qualities by literally internalizing his flesh—he claimed that his English got better after he munched on (the formerly English-speaking) Brandes’s body. He wanted to satisfy not just his nutritional needs but also some complex emotional associations he had made with his “food.” In that sense he’s just like the kids who enjoy healthy food better if it comes from a place known for junk/comfort food. Writes Bloom: “The psychology of the cannibal turns out to reflect an extreme version of what normal people think about the foods that they normally eat.”
 
2. Infidelity in verse. Let’s say you catch your man cheating and he tries to explain his behavior with this famous poem (supposedly written by either Dorothy Parker or William James): “Hogamous Higamous / Man is polygamous / Higamous Hogamous / Woman monogamous.” Bloom gives you the retort you need: Hogwash! “Statistically, [the poem] is on the right track, but it is incomplete,” he writes, then goes on to explain the reasons that men sometimes don’t cheat and women sometimes do. For instance, from an evo-psych perspective, women are often looking for good, reliable fathers. That means for some men, loudly advertising loyalty as a personality trait can be a better strategy than sneaking around, because “it is attractive to be faithful” (page 63).

3. Talk about natural selection. While exploring the pleasures of love—and examining the factors that cause a person to like a particular mate—Bloom reproduces Charles Darwin’s famous chart of the pros and cons of marriage, which Darwin actually used to decide to marry his wife, Emma. Why did Darwin like who he liked? It sounds as if he was mostly looking for kindness and companionship. (Some of his arguments in favor of marriage: “Charms of music and female chit-chat”; “better than a dog anyhow” [page 81].) Sure enough, Bloom is able to extrapolate to the rest of us: “In the largest study ever of human mate preferences, looking at people in 37 cultures, the most important factor for both men and women is kindness” (page 82).

Swipe This Critique

The problem with pop-psychology books is that they tend to examine one aspect of behavior, so we get How Pleasure Works, How We Decide, How the Brain Learns, etc. In real life, the brain makes decisions and feels pleasure and learns (sometimes simultaneously!), so it can feel artificial and incomplete to focus on some processes to the exclusion of others. Then again, maybe these books are supposed to be incomplete. Bloom cites a wonderful paper called “Explanation as Orgasm,” which “makes the connection between the satisfaction of orgasm as a spur to more sex and the satisfaction of a good explanation as a spur to further explanation.” Let’s apply the concept to his book: How Pleasure Works should stroke your neurons into a frenzy and leave you wanting more. It does!

Zeitgeist Check

If the anecdote that starts on page 117 sounds familiar—“This was no ordinary street performer. He was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s great violinists”—you might be a “We Read It” fan. The maestro-on-the-street-corner stunt was also cited in the new book The Invisible Gorilla and in our review of it. Psychology writers can’t get enough of this story, and it seems to be a Rorschach test for them—Gorilla used it to talk about how people pay attention; Bloom uses it to say something about taste. Maybe the Joshua Bell experiment deserves a book of its own?

Factoid File

“The title of the movie ‘The Crying Game’ was reportedly translated into Chinese in such a way that unfortunately gives away the main plot twist: ‘Oh No! My Girlfriend Has a Penis’ ” (page 164).

Gradebook

 

Prose: Bloom is a lovely, erudite stylist. He’s talking about very heady stuff—the book is at heart about essentialist philosophy—but he never devolves into intellectual jargon.

 

Construction: The book rambles. A lot. That’s part of its charm, but it means you can’t skim—if you skip a couple of pages you may discover you suddenly have no idea what Bloom is getting at.

 

Miscellaneous: Too many people view evolutionary psychology as “some simple-minded reductionist biological story.” It isn’t. Kudos to Bloom for offering a thoughtful defense of it straight off, in the preface.

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