Essential Reading: Paul Bloom on How Pleasure Works

“The main argument here is that pleasure is deep,” Paul Bloom writes early on in his new book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. “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 the thing is.” Bloom argues that at the root of pleasure is our reading (or misreading) of the essence of something rather than the facts presented to our senses. This essential reading directs our appreciation of everything from our mates to our favorite music or painting. After reading How Pleasure Works, you may never look at how you look at things the same way again.


Bloom draws his essence-based pleasure theory from “one of the most interesting ideas in the cognitive sciences,” he writes, “which is that people naturally assume that things in the world—including other people—have invisible essences that make them what they are.” We take things on faith, in other words, rather than on fact. This faith-based approach comes from the ancient hardwiring of our brains. “We have evolved essentialism to help us make sense of the world, but now that we have it,” Bloom suggests, “it pushes our desires in directions that have nothing to do with survival and reproduction.” Before we could reason our way through the world, we had to believe our way through it. Despite rational revelations of these once-magical realms, we still fall for the tricks our minds once played on us.

How Pleasure Works covers all the pleasure centers—food, sex, religion, and the arts. I found Bloom’s approach to the arts the most compelling. He actually begins the book with the infamous case of art forger Han Van Meegeren, who sold his The Supper at Emmaus (shown above) to Nazi leader Hermann Göring as a genuine Vermeer. Göring faced the music at the war crimes trials at Nurenberg with aplomb, but when informed of his prize painting being a fake, Göring’s smile quickly vanished (almost as quickly as the cash value of the painting itself). When we look at Van Meegeren’s clumsy fake today, it seems impossible it could ever have been considered a Vermeer. However, once the label stuck, the aura of the master blinded even experts desperate to find another work by the Master of Delft. Stories such as that of Göring’s epic disappointment lend a great power to Bloom’s argument.

“Much of the pleasure that we get from art is rooted in an appreciation of the human history underlying its creation,” Bloom believes. “This is its essence.” There’s a “life force” clinging to an original work of art that reproductions lack, the same way that something belonging to a famous person becomes an instant collectable. In art, much of that “life force” comes from the creative act itself—the displayed performance of the artist. “[C]ertain displays—including artwork—provide us with valuable and positive information about another person,” Bloom continues. “We have evolved to get pleasure from such displays… for a human artifact such as a painting, the essence is the inferred performance underlying its creation.” Something that seems hard to do will always draw our respect and inspire pleasure. When people argue about the value of a painting, it’s generally an argument over the difficulty involved. “This is why people react so negatively to modern and postmodern work,” Bloom conclude, “the skill is not apparent.” Jackson Pollock, for example, thus becomes a genius or a fraud based on whether you appreciate the skill involved in his paintings, or think that any five-year-old could do them.

How Pleasure Works deals in difficult concepts without getting bogged down in jargon. Bloom writes in a popular style but never dilutes the force of his ideas. In the end, Bloom offers a scientific argument for how we derive pleasure from works without giving some set recipe for inducing that pleasure, which would only cheapen the sources of our pleasure. We’ll always be drawn to the works of names like Picasso, but How Pleasure Works reminds us that much of the allure of any master’s oeuvre is the human element—the “life force” of the creator. If anything, knowing that we are conditioned to seek out this essence may drive us to see that essence in new masters—the Vermeer’s of today and tomorrow. Knowing how to direct that essential reading in our lives will lead us to greater pleasures tomorrow and makes Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works essential reading for today.

[Many thanks to W.W. Norton & Company for providing me with a review copy of Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.]

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.