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 tasting⎯it was a cheap bottle of Californian Cabernet⎯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 machine⎯the drinks were sipped via a network of plastic tubes⎯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.