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HOW PLEASURE WORKS: THE NEW SCIENCE OF WHY WE LIKE WHAT WE LIKE (Unplugged)

A conversation between Paul Bloom & Moe Abdou

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How Pleasure Works: The New Science of

Why We Like What We Like (Unplugged)

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About Paul Bloom & Moe Abdou

Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom with Moe Abdou

Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching. He is past-president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and co-editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, one of the major journals in the field.

Moe Abdou

Moe Abdou is the creator of 33voices — a global conversation about things that matter in business and in life. moe@33voices.com

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How Pleasure Works: The New Science of

Why We Like What We Like (Unplugged)

!

Paul Bloom with Moe Abdou

Your book is very intriguing to me. You talk about how deep pleasure is and about the importance of what really matters and how it leads us to this pleasure. The first thought that came to mind, Dr. Bloom; is what stimulates our thinking that leads us away from pleasure most of the time?

In other words, why don’t we take pleasure from certain things?

Yeah. If we think about something to stimulate our perception and/or our pleasure, why is the world filled with a lot of people thinking almost completely in the other direction?

I think we wouldn’t want to be a creature that took pleasure in everything. So when I argue that we take our experience of something that is colored by how we see it, this doesn’t necessarily imply that how we see it is under voluntary control. So what it means is it’s affected by our understanding of it. The understanding that a painting was painted by a certain person or that a food was made in a certain way and that affects us.

You could imagine a creature very different from us that could just simply choose to be affected in different ways. They could chose to like an incompetent forgery just as much as masterpiece or they can choose to like food that was dipped in dirt as opposed to fresh food but we’re not such creatures. I’m not sure we would want to be such creatures. So to some extent, our pleasure reflects I think a discernment that would be good to have.

Do you think there is an appropriate percentage where we want to at least be happy or perceived happy?

My book isn’t so much about happiness. I’m more interested in the cases of why we get pleasure from some things versus other things. The argument I make, as you put it is, that we’re sensitive to the deeper nature of things. It’s our understanding that shapes our pleasure.

The way the world works is that often our pleasure resonates I think to real value, to real important things. I’m not sure we’d want to be the sort of person - again the sort of animal that would take pleasure in anything and it just doesn’t matter. We just throw the mental switch and achieve transcendent pleasure and then it wouldn’t matter what we ate. It wouldn’t matter what TV shows we watched. What our work we looked at. I think something would be lost.

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How Pleasure Works: The New Science of

Why We Like What We Like (Unplugged)

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Paul Bloom with Moe Abdou

Do you think sometimes we misuse the word pleasure? I mean, we hear sometimes this person gets pleasure in killing somebody, or this person gets pleasure in these particular activities. One of the things that kept ringing through my mind as I kept reading your book, maybe as a society we don’t understand the word or maybe we just misuse it.

I think we could use the word in all sorts of ways. I’m not sure it’s wrong to say that people get pleasure from doing terrible things or pleasure from immorality or pleasure from foolish activities or activities that at least you and I might agree are foolish. When I use the word pleasure and there are different ways to use it, I view it to some extent in a value neutral way.

So we can take pleasure in things that are morally good. We can also take pleasure in things that are morally bad. This is why to some extent I would like to dissociate pleasure from maybe broader questions about living the good life.

I think that there are a lot of things you do to live a good life …that you do that really aren’t pleasurable and maybe shouldn’t be pleasurable.

You take certain social interactions. I think everybody; every good parent should be willing to punish his or her child. But I’m not sure what I would think about somebody enjoying it, taking pleasure from it.

I use the term pleasure in a broad sense; in a value neutral sense. I’m entirely

comfortable with saying that somebody getting pleasure from doing something awful. There is no contradiction for me. What this means is that sometimes it’s

not right to take pleasure and I’m comfortable with that.

When I look at this from a business context, and I look at the example of the big oil crisis we are seeing on the news everyday. Certainly, they didn’t take pleasure in that happening. So I look at pleasure in the context of your work from a business point. It stimulates some thinking as how can a corporation truly add pleasure in the right context, to its customer base, to its stakeholders, to its employees.

I think that’s a great question. Let me just take the first part about the

customer base. I think to some extent, what my book does is make an argument that is unfamiliar to many psychologists and perhaps novel from a somewhat scientific perspective, but somewhat second nature to people involved in marketing. What I argue is that the pleasure we take in an object like a painting or a Rolex watch or an Armani suit or something like that doesn’t reduce to its material aspects. The material aspects are relevant but I don’t think those are the most relevant things. The most relevant factor here is

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How Pleasure Works: The New Science of

Why We Like What We Like (Unplugged)

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Paul Bloom with Moe Abdou

the objects understood nature. That could be, who made it? How it was made? Who likes it? The social context in which it was generated, one example which I don’t discuss in my book but I’m working on independently is you can buy something that is so close to a Rolex watch that only an expert could tell the difference and pay one-hundredth of the price. Why don’t we do it then? In part because a Rolex watch gets value because it’s presumed to have a certain history, a certain pedigree. It’s that which gives us pleasure. It’s not just snobbery. We really react to it differently; the same with an Armani suit or an expensive brand of whiskey and that for all of these things, it makes a difference to us, the story behind it.

So this is why so many successful companies are in the story business. They’re in the business of persuading people that the products that they want them to buy are made with love, they’re one of a kind, they’re the newest, they’re the oldest, they’re the one’s used by celebrities. And they do this because they believe; I think correctly that this makes a difference, not just to which people choose to buy but actually to have people experience these things.

Yeah, you’re absolutely correct. Talking about it from that perspective, most of us don’t find pleasure in being sold something. Sometimes you feel when somebody is selling you that perhaps they’re not telling you the real stories yet most sales people tend to find it very pleasurable when they close a sale.

We’re naturally cautious individuals. To some extent, a lot of interaction, everything from sex to romance to marketing is in some sense a clash between people of different interests. You’re trying to sell me something and you’re telling me a story. I’m trying to figure out what the right thing to buy is and I’m trying to asses whether your story is accurate or not. It’s in your interest to make the object or the person as attractive as possible. It’s in my interest to find the truth.

So this exists in the marketing realm. It also exists in the interpersonal realm. If somebody is trying to woo somebody else, he or she wants to seem as sexy and smart and as kind as possible. The other person wants to see this person’s true nature. I’m not the first to suggest that the clash between the sort of somebody involved in marketing and a consumer is sort of structurally similar when somebody chooses a sexual or romantic partner.

You talk about how as a leisure activity for most human beings, we participate in experiences that aren’t real, that is maybe the one activity

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How Pleasure Works: The New Science of

Why We Like What We Like (Unplugged)

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Paul Bloom with Moe Abdou

that you reference we do the most. Do we enjoy these imaginative experiences because at some level we perceive them as real?

It’s a good question. I think the answer to that is yes. I think there are two things going on in our appreciation of imagined experiences. One is that they tickle the same pleasurable responses that the real world tickles. One reason why pornography is so incredibly popular is that we respond to it as if we were seeing real people. So our evolved sexuality can be triggered by these two dimensional images just as it’s triggered by real things. That’s half the story. I think that’s an important half of the story.

The other half of the story though is that if you know something is imagined, you sort of throw a switch in your head and you could respond to it in somewhat different ways. For instance, the morality of the situation changes. You’d be a cruel person if you enjoy the pain of others in the real world. But, to take pleasure in the pain of others when watching a play by Shakespeare or an HBO series like The Sopranos, you could just get pleasure out of it because you know it’s fictional and that’s an entirely different thing.

So imagination is a wonderful case, as you point out, this is our biggest pleasure. If you took a clock and timed the different pleasures you get from each day, imagination will win out by far. TV, movies, books, daydreaming, fantasy, dreams, all of these are unreal but you can enjoy all of them. But at the same time, it speaks to two different things. In part, we enjoy it because we respond to it as though it was real and then in part, knowing that it’s imagined, changes the rules and allows for avenues of pleasure that we just can’t get from the real world.

Obviously, you know that a lot of the great athletes of the world visualize their games in their minds before they play the game. Is this what you’re saying here? Maybe if we can really start to imagine our experiences in our lives, perhaps we might have a better opportunity to live a life like the athlete that is visualizing the Saturday game and actually creates it.

I think to some extent that’s why we enjoy fiction. So the question is why do we like stories so much? I think one answer to this and this is an answer that has been proposed by many philosophers and psychologists. The athlete mentally rehearsing his or her shot, it’s a way of practicing. It’s a way of practicing alternative realities. We’re driven to sort of imagine ourselves in different situations, imagine novel and social interactions. Some of them are quite scary. Some of them are tragic because this is useful practice for the real

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How Pleasure Works: The New Science of

Why We Like What We Like (Unplugged)

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Paul Bloom with Moe Abdou

world. So in some way you could view our love of stories as to some extent a sort of exercise regime for our social minds.

And the pleasure we take in that is similar to the pleasure we take in any sort of play. So you step back, why do we like animals enjoy playing? Why do we enjoy running around? Why do we enjoy play fighting? Why do we enjoy video games? From a Darwinian standpoint, it seems mad. Why would we waste our time on this? But the answer is I think, as illustrated by your story about the athlete is because play is useful practice for the real thing. It’s safe practice.

Do we lose our imagination as adults? Watching kids it appears that they definitely have it.

I think if anything, adults have richer and more powerful imaginations than kids. Kids do a lot of pretend in play but nothing compared to the sort of play and pretend that an adult does. We immerse ourselves in imaginary worlds all the time. We’re endless daydreamers. I think children are imaginative creatures but they’re just coping from day to day, minute to minute with the struggles of dealing with reality. For an adult like you and me, we often have reality lit. We make things harder for ourselves and we explore imaginary worlds.

Is that why most adults don’t understand themselves very much? Is there a reason why we’re not more self -accepting individuals and professionals?

I’m not sure. I don’t know. I’m not sure what it means to say we’re not self accepting.

Sometimes we’re very judgmental. We want to constantly become a better person or we are constantly criticizing ourselves for not doing something right or not doing something perfect. I know very few people who truly understand themselves.

In some sense, what you have there is another interesting clash of interests. Because, if you want to be happy, if you’re mind is evolved to be happy then no matter what you’re up to, you’d be perfectly pleased with what you’re doing but, we’re not such creatures. We’re creatures that have often that evolved an eye towards out fighting, out charming, out reproducing everybody else.

So it pays for an animal like us to actually be fairly self evaluative, to constantly judge ourselves relative to other people because as a primate, you want to know where you are relative to other members of your tribe. You want

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How Pleasure Works: The New Science of

Why We Like What We Like (Unplugged)

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Paul Bloom with Moe Abdou

to know where you are in that state of hierarchy and the more brutally honest you are, the better because that helps you calibrate your behavior and behave in more appropriate manners. Its interesting how if we have evolved to just be happy, we’d be blissful creatures, then we’d be sort of satisfied to wherever we are. But, we have evolved for other things. So this leads to sort of a basic insecurity and turmoil as part of the human condition.

You know what is very intriguing especially as you’re saying that, I’m thinking perhaps our emotions become insensitive between what’s real and what’s imaginary as we really embrace this.

Some of our emotions are insensitive between the real and imaginary. Basically, we respond to pornographic images as if they were real people. Our mouths could water when we look at commercial which has some delicious food. We scream at horror movies. To some extent, we are insensitive. But to some extent we aren’t. We could follow a TV program such as the program Breaking Bad which has these wonderfully unsympathetic characters. If they were real, I would be repelled by them. But because I know they’re not real, I find them attractive and interesting. This is I think one of these great gifts that adults have to understand these behaviors and imagine a world in these two different ways.

What intrigues you about this topic? I know that this is an area that you continue to explore but as you further your research in that area, what intrigues you about this whole notion of pleasure?

I think pleasure is absolutely fascinating because it tells us a lot about how the mind works. I think our everyday pleasures tap in to notions such as our understanding of objects or understanding of people, our evaluation of social interactions, our sexual desire. Everything from very primitive desires like thirst and hunger to more abstract desires that are satisfied by religion and by science. To some extent, I think that if you would understand pleasure, you would understand everything. That’s why I find it a very interesting topic.

How can we as human beings or people in the business world gain a better understanding of pleasure. I had mentioned to you that I recommended this book to several of my friends as somebody recommended it to me. I’m certainly not at your level of intrigue but I’m very intrigued by this topic. How can we start to learn more about this area?

I think there is a lot of intriguing and exciting research from it. I talked about some of the research in my book. There are other books … the very well known

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How Pleasure Works: The New Science of

Why We Like What We Like (Unplugged)

!

Paul Bloom with Moe Abdou

work of people like Dan Ariely on Behavioral Economics, often bears directly on pleasure. Some questions which I’m very interested in, some questions that are somewhat independent of mine such the pleasures we associate or don’t associate with money. I think that the fields of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics really can yield some practical and beneficial and quite fascinating insights.

Are there any unanswered questions for you particularly with this topic at this stage?

They’re all unanswered questions. There are so many deep puzzles. I’ll tell you one unanswered question. I don’t fully understand, I have some ideas, but don’t fully understand why we are so drawn to mild pain. So one of the interesting facts about humans is we like to Tabasco sauce, we like hot baths, we like exercise that pushes us to the limit. It’s unclear where this pleasure from pain comes from and I’m very interested in that.

I’m interested in your work and I appreciate you taking the time to give us this brief interview because I really believe that this the more individuals specifically entrepreneurs explore this topic. I think the more excitement they’re going to have in their lives and their businesses.

Thank you. This has been a very generous and a very interesting interview.

Well I appreciate it very much and hopefully we can keep the conversation going.

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