Book Review: How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom

George Orwell was not fond of his time spent working in a bookshop. In fact, he found the experience so unpleasant that he bothered to publish an essay complaining about the many annoyances he encountered there. His list of grievances includes the scores of undiscerning customers and the profusion of nasty dust. I mention this not just because of the rather striking irony of a successful author who disdains bookstores. Clearly in Orwell’s case it was not the abstract notion of a market of ideas that bothered him. What did annoy him were the tastes and buying habits of the customers. While my own experience working in a bookstore has certainly been more pleasant than his, Orwell’s insights into the purchasing habits of consumers still ring true today. Simply put, people write terrible books because people will buy them – or is it the other way around? In any case, the amount of paper doomed to serve as the pages of laughable, offensive, trivial or simply incorrect publications is staggering. Like Orwell, I quickly grew dismayed to observe the “rarity of really bookish people” frequenting the store where I work.*

I suspect the reason that most people head straight for the books about vampires and boy wizards is because they read to temporarily escape reality and to be entertained. Fair enough. However, the bookshops of today aren’t like they were in Orwell’s day. The sheer volume and diversity of titles is staggering. And the entertainment value of a book is decreasingly a function of its subject matter. There is an encouraging, growing trend of popular science books that make coherent and novel arguments. Two classic examples are Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. At the expense of subtlety, I’ll just make my point: most science books aren’t boring anymore! At last one can be relatively bookish while still being entertained, albeit not by escaping reality but by diving more deeply into it.

One of the most compelling arguments to support my point is Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works. It’s a book about evolutionary psychology and its effects on human culture. It’s also a book about dildos, Big Macs and cannibalism. In fact, it’s even a book about vampires and boy wizards!

How Pleasure Works

In this, his newest book, Bloom explains the psychological constants underpinning the multifarious manifestations of human pleasures. The easier ones to account for using a Darwinian logic are the various perversions of eating and sex. Or so it would seem. It’s not hard to explain why people like to eat fatty and sweet foods or like to have lots of sex with lots of people. It’s a little harder to explain why they might want Tabasco sauce or ball-gags involved.

The author argues that an essentialist cognitive framework helps to explain why so many of our pleasures take the bizarre turns that they do. He seeks to explain why we enjoy heartwarming tales of romance and gory slasher films, why we have imaginary friends, why we like initially disgusting foods, why unique artifacts with links to the famous or the powerful are such widespread fetishes, and why pain itself can be a source of immense pleasure.

Essentialism is not a new idea. And strictly speaking it is not a very good idea either – it is very difficult to argue that similar objects share a particular, intangible essence that is an incontrovertible part of their identity. However, it is an apparently effective evolutionary product that plays a significant part in our perception of the universe. Evidence from studies involving children bears out the notion that we are disposed from very early on to assume certain essentialist properties in the world. This bias or intuition has a marked impact on how we treat objects, and can be very difficult to override even when we are being supremely logical and calculating. The factors that influence the pleasure we derive from objects and experiences are not merely superficial nor are they particularly logical. How we think about objects/experiences and frame their past and social context greatly influences our response to them.  Often the beliefs that affect our actions are unconscious, and counter-intuitive. Bloom draws on dozens of humorous and elegant experiments (often involving things one might find in a joke shop like fake poop and vomit) to establish this conclusion.

Bloom’s arguments are plausible to the degree one accepts that although the processes of evolution may be stated parsimoniously, its products can diverge widely and unexpectedly. Furthermore, one must be willing to accept that while adaptation is one of the hallmarks of evolutionary design, often enough some of the strangest products are indeed accidental. Just so long as the accidental features do not significantly outweigh the adaptations they accompany, we can expect them to persist. It’s when culture takes off and these accidental features are tapped by our technologies, customs, and habits that we begin to see some pretty bizarre stuff that is very clearly not Darwinian. Condoms and hyper-obesity are just the beginning.

A long-standing problem with utilitarian philosophy has been the disparate nature of human pleasures. For Jimmy there is no greater pleasure than training for and competing in triathlons – for Timmy it doesn’t get any better than sadomasochistic acts involving the unconventional use of produce. There is also the political and legal problem of contradictory pleasures. Timmy can’t stop thinkin’ (and eatin’!) Arby’s, while Jimmy is heartbroken at the thought of factory-farmed beef.

Bloom doesn’t pretend to resolve these troublesome matters. What he does do is provide a framework for better understanding the nature of human pleasures and, eventually, determining what we will define as pathologies of such dispositions. This book is an early step on the march toward an understanding of human well-being that is not defined exclusively in psychological terms, but which is nevertheless heavily informed by the factual contingencies of our evolutionary, biological past.

* George Orwell. “Bookshop Memories” (1936) in Books v. Cigarettes. Penguin: London, 2008. p. 8

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