The Essence of Pleasure

The Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has written an excellent new book, How Pleasure Works, that I had the pleasure of blurbing. The book elegantly refutes the idea that our pleasures are mere sensations, or that our delight can be neatly reduced into some ingredient list of superficial perceptions. Instead, Bloom emphasizes the importance of essentialism, which is the instinctive belief that everything in the world has an underlying reality, or true nature, or essence.

We are all natural essentialists. Frank Keil, a psychologist at Yale, has done some interesting work that captures this tendency at work. He begins by showing his young subjects a variety of visual transformations: a tiger that's been dressed in a lion suit, a porcupine that has been turned into a cactus, a real dog that resembles a toy. Not surprisingly, the children dismiss these transformations as irrelevant and superficial. The porcupine is still a porcupine. The dog is still a dog. The tiger is still a tiger, even if it looks like a lion. It was only when Keil told the children that the transformations also took place on the inside - their internal essences had been altered - that the little kids were convinced the animals had changed categories. The tiger was now a lion.

What does essentialism have to do with pleasure? Consider the deliciousness of a particular wine, which turns out to have little to do with the taste of the wine. In How We Decide, I describe a recent experiment led by neuroscientists at Cal-Tech:

Twenty people sampled five Cabernet Sauvignons that were distinguished solely by their retail price, with bottles ranging from $5 to $90. Although the people were told that all five wines were different, the scientists weren't telling the truth: there were only three different wines. This meant that the same wines would often reappear, but with different price labels. For example, the first wine offered during the tastingâ¯it was a cheap bottle of Californian Cabernetâ¯was labeled both as a $5 wine (it's actual retail price) and as a $45 dollar wine, a 900 percent markup. All of the red wines were sipped inside an fMRI machine.

Not surprisingly, the subjects consistently reported that the more expensive wines tasted better. They preferred the $90 bottle to the $10 bottle, and thought the $45 Cabernet was far superior to the $5 plonk. By conducting the wine tasting inside an fMRI machineâ¯the drinks were sipped via a network of plastic tubesâ¯the scientists could see how the brains of the subjects responded to the different wines. While a variety of brain regions were activated during the experiment, only one brain region seemed to respond to the price of the wine, rather than the wine itself: the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is believe to "integrate" sensory information with our expectations. In general, more expensive wines made the medial orbitofrontal cortex more excited. The scientists argue that the activity of this brain region shifted the preferences of the wine tasters, so that the $90 Cabernet seemed to taste better than the $10 Cabernet, even though they were actually the same wine.

What's causing this silly behavior? Bloom argues that essentialism plays a big role. We automatically believe that more expensive wine has a tastier essence, and that belief alters our sensory expectations. Those expectations, in turn, alter our perceptual interpretations, so that what we experience conforms to what we expect to experience. The essence of the thing has thus been confirmed: more expensive wine tastes better, even if the expensive wine is really Gallo Hearty Burgundy. This helps explain why so many food advertisements focus on the "essence" of the product, whether it's Coors being brewed from Rocky Mountain spring water, or Evian coming straight from the French Alps. The marketers know that the easiest way to increase our pleasure isn't by telling us how pleasurable the product is: It's by weaving an engaging story about essences.

Bloom illustrates this same principle with a great anecdote:

As the founder and CEO of Perrier North America, it was important for Bruce Nevins to convey to people how good his product tastes. It was a bad day for him, then, when he was on a live radio show and asked to pick out the Perrier from a selection of seven cups of water. He got it on the fifth try.

There is nothing wrong with his taste buds. In blind taste tests, with waters at equal temperature, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between tap water and luxury bottled waters.

I would bet, though, that once Nevins left the radio show and went back to his life, he still thought that Perrier tasted really good - the radio test didn't prove otherwise. If so, he would be right. That is, someone who prefers the taste of Perrier to other waters but fails a blind taste test is not dishonest or confused. Perrier does taste great. It's just that to appreciate its great taste, you have to know that it is Perrier.


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Although I think it is pretty accurate in pointing out how our expectations can be used to alter our perception of things, the wine tasting experiment still suffers from the artificiality of the setup - you don't sip wine through a tube, you sip it from a glass shaped to capture and concentrate the aroma.

Also, all this talk of essences cannot help but get me thinking about the fallacy of homeopathy.

Essentialism seems to play a role in our lives in many ways, and I'm sure we could go into not just wines and foods but even cars and art or just about any other activity that provides humans with pleasure.

There are, however, often people who really do know how to break down wines and various food flavors into their component parts and distinguish the qualities that others cannot perceive or understand. And there are people who really do know a thing or two about art and cars too. So the issue of essentializing probably applies far more to the average person who just has not or cannot develop the skills needed to know wines or cars or art rather than to those who have taken the time to know these complicated areas of pleasure within our culture.

When evaluating art, people often "see" much more in the pieces that have famous names or high price tags attached to them. Maybe that has something to do with expensive wines being served at art openings, but I am not sure at this point. No matter.

It seems people cling to notions of what is essential when they are afraid of their own ignorance. They can see the beautiful and the sublime in a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh as long as the name is present at the same time as the painting is. Instead of acknowledging their ignorance and learning about aesthetics, they cling to the trappings that come with a well known name.

Areas of refined expertise, such as wine tasting and art appreciation, often have steep learning curves and require a level of training most people just do not have the time for. I just think we need to become more comfortable with being ignorant. In fact, I would consider myself something of a connoisseur of cheap beers and my own stupidity.

By Gopherus Agassizii (not verified) on 14 Jun 2010 #permalink

I have not yet read this book, but am skeptical about essentialism. Even though perception may be a series of emergent qualities, there is a poly-molecular truth which which is not relative. There is in fact a difference in wines and waters, whether at a given moment that is accessible or not. The wine experiment was false, as stated above, because tasting requires too many processes running in parallel. Understanding the parallel processing seems to me more important than writing it off under a new title of essentialism.

Perhaps when you pay a lot of money for a bottle of water, you have to tell yourself it must taste great because otherwise you have to tell yourself you're stupid.

Expectations also tell you that the way it's gonna taste is the way it's supposed to taste. Like the first time I ate broccoli. Hated it anyway.

I find this whole topic quite fascinating.

If you penetrate this rhetorical formulation, you have a dimly obscured invitation to nescience which the world of advertising exploits to the max.

The medial orbitofrontal cortex which supposedly integrates sensory information with our expectations would seem to provide the "essence" of most decision-making.

The emotional and mental hype that we assign to our preferences do not, necessarily, diminish their quality; however, they certainly set the stage for the individual's Procrusteanized realities.

As the lyrics to this Eric Clapton tune illustrate, the "essence" of love relies heavily on expectation and how someone makes us "feel".

"I can still see your face
But I know that it's not real
It's just an illusion
Caused by how you made me feel."

Perhaps the reason for such a high divorce rate.


Why do the psychologists get credited by name while the Caltech neuroscientists get shortchanged? They're quite decent folks: Hilke Plassman, John O'Doherty, Baba Shiv, and Antonio Rangel.

The paper is "Marketing Actions Modulate the Neural Representation of Experienced Pleasantness" in the January 2008 PNAS.

I have no problem with 'essentialism' as a neuropsych concept except in being offended by its name: Essentialism. The neuropsych effect is the opposite of what is essential: 1. The intrinsic or indispensable properties that serve to characterize or identify something. 2. The most important ingredient; the crucial element. 3. The inherent, unchanging nature of a thing or class of things.

We are not finding the essence of the thing (ingredients, genetics, molecular chemistry, etc), but are influenced, instead, by the non-essential factor(s): price, market conditions, status, packaging, reputation, presentation.

It is, therefore, not an essentialist effect, but a superficial effect.

If you really want the kick of consumer a luxury price, but cannot afford the top line, there is a compromise: pick a lower priced item offered by a luxury manufacturer. It's probably the basis on which much of the perfume and wine business is already run--not to mention the fashion industry.

Can't afford that pricey Chateauneuf by a renowned Vintner, you know, the one who got the high Robert Parker score? Then select the Cotes du Rhone from the same brand for under $15.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, MIT has shown that placebo works, and that a more expensive placebo worked even better. So we know that the brain is being affected by the set up, the question is "how". It would be impossible to measure the number of variables in the wine test; had the person every tasted a $100 bottle of wine before? In the water tasting, however the results make sense, water pretty much tastes like water, and paying for an "essential" beyond the benefits of the water itself is superficial. So, is pleasure, as we perceive it superficial as well? It probably is. What is pleasurable to us may be the same as the question, "Is the glass half empty or half full." Daniel Kahnman, a Nobel Prize winner, would add to this the idea of a pleasurable experience vs the memory of the experience. His work suggests that a happy experience is often clouded in the memory of the experiences.
That said, I will read Paul Bloom's new book.

By Ted Hoppe (not verified) on 16 Jun 2010 #permalink

It is interesting to consider the equivalence between Bloom's concept of essentialism and that of imagination. Especially in light of recent evidence that imagining pleasurable events seems to engage the brain's reward centers:

I did a quick experiment to see if a friend of my girlfriend could really tell the difference between the tastes of bottled water like she claimed to. She was going on about how so and so brand tasted gross and this other brand was better tasting. I was very skeptical since I can't tell the differences between the tastes of bottled water. I ran to the store picked up 5 types of water. Ranging in price point. I made sure to get the two she claimed she didn't liked and disliked. Then triple bagged it so you couldn't see through the plastic, took it home set up the experiment in the kitchen. Called her in and had her write down her feeling about the 5 sample cups. All exactly the same temperature. Refrigerator cold. (whatever that might be) When she finished I was surprised to find that she was actually able to distinguish between which she thought tasted good and bad and even very good. She wasn't able to tell what brands they were though. What she wrote down correlated with what she had been claiming. She even picked out the expensive water as tasting very good. I was really surprised. I should probably test her again just to see of it was luck.

By Christopher Soto (not verified) on 16 Jun 2010 #permalink

The essentialism being described is not referring to the essential nature of reality. It doesn't deal with reality on a molecular level. It has to do with the essential, stored archetype built from previous perception. Perception is highly subject to all kinds of influences; hence the prevalence of optical illusions.

I can pick Evian from N other samples of tap water. It has that taste of rock. It rocks! Same goes for wine tasting. But I cannot taste a costly wine from a cheap one. No one can taste the price of something, because the price is set by the voluntary choice of another person. It is not true that costly things are tastier. Neither are tastier things costlier. But valuable things are tastier, and tastier things are valuable if one remains true to ones values. The source of such values is ones mind.

To quote Fransciso d'Anconia: "Money will not purchase happiness for the man who has no concept of what he wants: money will not give him a code of values, if he's evaded the knowledge of what to value, and it will not provide him with a purpose, if he's evaded the choice of what to seek."…

This is a fascinating entry! It reminds me of the new American fascination with everything natural. For instance, our favorite WholeFoods. The new middle class loves organic foods, local foods, natural foods, sometimes without even knowing what's so good about them, and why they should cost us a lot more. Another such example has to be the countless yoga studios in new york city that can sometimes be too pricey or pretentious to be worth it.

Of course, there are countless benefits of pursuing the "natural", or a lot of other things in this case. However, it is the source of these "pleasures" that we are more than often blind to.

What Jenny says is such a good example. The whole organic food obsession is such a great example. in psychoanalysis we may think of this sort of behaviour of projection of fear or badness into "non-organic" foods and settling the split by choosing a 'good' food.

x jo

Referring to comment #1, homeopathy is a fallacy only if you ignore the hugely powerful placebo effect, and focus only on a certain level of proof. My point is not to defend homeopathy, but to acknowledge that it is like the wine tasting. It is all about expectation--indeed, the title of the post might better be "The Expectation of Pleasure," and in marketing that is what we strive to be: expectation experts.

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