Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology who runs the mind and behavior lab at Yale, gave a talk on Wednesday night titled “How Pleasure Works.” The lecture, sponsored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society and the philosophy department, was based on many of the ideas explored by Bloom in his book of the same title.
Bloom focused on one well-known example of the pleasure – and pain – evoked by art. The story is that of Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second-in-command who, like the totalitarian, fancied himself an art collector and often plundered revered art during World War II.
“He wanted a Vermeer, ‘The Supper at Emmaus,’ and paid the equivalent of $10 million for what he thought was a classic work of art,” Bloom said. When the Allies found and imprisoned Goering, they stumbled upon the piece and consequently arrested Han Van Meegeren, who had sold the painting to Goering. Because Goering was a Nazi, the sale was considered treason. However, Van Meegeren had not sold the original painting; he painted a new one. Goering killed himself two days after his lawyer broke the news.
“What do you make of all this?” Bloom mused about the idea of authenticity in art and our reaction to a work not being authentic. “There is one standard response; it is that it’s flim-flam,” he said. “It’s that what’s going on here is somehow a huge con.” But Bloom promised that he would try to convince everyone in the room that what was going on in fact was not flim-flam, and that, in the words of linguist Steven Pinker, “arts engage not only the psychology of aesthetics but the psychology of status.” This means that we often buy art not simply because it looks pretty, but also because it is demonstrative of wealth and indicative of a power of discernment and refinement in terms of our taste above those who are, say, not as wealthy.
According to Bloom, perceptions affect pleasure not just with art, but also with food and even with sex.
In that vein, Bloom flashed two photographs of “attractive” people – one male and one female – on the overhead projector at the front of the room, explaining that while the average person would consider these individuals to be good-looking, “the information you receive” about the people actually makes a difference in establishing the attractiveness of the photographs. For example, what if one photo was of a sibling, or if we were told that one was far older or younger than originally thought? “It matters who you think you’re looking at,” Bloom said.
Bloom illustrated a culinary example as well, depicting what appeared to be a slab of meat on the overhead projector screen. “Would you eat this?” Bloom queried, acknowledging that most people would respond, “Well, it depends on what it is.” For example, knowing it was meat, a vegetarian would not eat it, and knowing it was human flesh, most of us would not eat it, Bloom explained. “The effects of your beliefs on your perception is so great,” Bloom said.
Bloom also noted that while some objects may not have any significant monetary or utility value, they carry a sentimental or historical value instead. One study he explained featured young children whose toys were put into a pretend “duplicating machine” (or simple box) that produced both the original and a copy of each object. The children thought the phenomenon was fascinating, and each time they were asked, they chose to take home the novel “duplicate” toy instead of the original. However, when their own toys – their teddy bears – were put into the machine, they wanted the original, demonstrating the sentimental value of the objects.
Children are not the only ones susceptible to this psychology, Bloom explained. We pay hundreds of dollars for the chewed gum of Britney Spears, President Obama’s half-eaten breakfast or the clothing worn by celebrities. Brown described one study that asked participants to envision a high-ranking individual (or celebrity) and then asked how much they would pay for an article of clothing worn by this individual. The study found that participants’ values dropped when they were told that they could not tell anybody about owning the article of clothing and that they could not sell it. Interestingly enough, values dropped even more precipitously when participants were informed that the hypothetical article of clothing would be washed before they were given possession of it.
There was also the social experiment conducted in a Washington, D.C. subway station involving the famous violinist Joshua Bell, who was set up to play for cash in the public venue. Virtually nobody recognized him, until one woman, who had gone to one of his concerts in the past, approached Bell, handed him $20 and whispered, “I’m so sorry you’re down on your luck.”
Bloom explained that everything about our perceptions of pleasure also applies to our perceptions of pain.
Referencing a particularly painful proof, Bloom discussed a study in which undergraduate college students were repeatedly given an electric shock. The students were split into two groups, and the students in one of the groups were told that they were being shocked by someone in another room. For these students, each shock felt equally painful, but for those who were not led to believe that someone was deliberately shocking them, the pain they felt decreased with every recurring shock. In both groups, students’ perceptions of pain were influenced by their perceptions or beliefs about the source of the pain.
“In general, we seek out painful experiences,” Bloom said, citing roller coasters, spicy foods and tragic fiction as examples of controlled pain that we can appreciate as fictive or manufactured, and hence safe and possibly even enjoyable.
But back to pleasure: The two things we like most? “Sex and socializing,” according to research. Bloom explained that both are functionally important for humans in an evolutionary sense, noting that socialization was and is so functionally significant that it led to the formation and evolution of language.
Bloom also highlighted the evolutionary significance of sex and violence, pleasure and pain: “We are fascinated by sex and violence,” he said, even though the time spent on each is relatively insignificant within the span of the average human life. Bloom noted that both sex and violence “plug into the two most important things for an animal: reproduction and death.” Although violence is not necessarily pleasurable, “play” violence, or pretend violence, is evolutionarily useful as a “safe practice,” according to Bloom. From an evolutionary standpoint, we “practice” violence or terror in wrestling or horror films so that we are able to “get good at [these things] for later, when you have to do them for real,” Bloom said.