Feature

Why do we like what we like?

At the moment we consume, say, a chocolate bar, our brains seamlessly synthesize sensory phenomena, ideas, memories, and expectations—which means that we often don't fully understand why we like the things we like. Psychologist Paul Bloom describes how storytelling and marketing can add layers of meaning to our pleasures.


By Ted O'Callahan

A piece of chocolate is among life's simple, certain pleasures. The cocoa smell, the velvety feel as it melts on your tongue, and the taste—sweet and bitter—that stays in the mouth, all combine to create a heady experience. 

But what about the experience of carefully selecting and anticipating a favorite brand—peeling back gold foil wrapping, feeling the shape of the bar in your fingers. How much is that part of why you enjoy your favorite chocolate? 

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom argues that it's easy to miss the complexity that underlies pleasure. His work looks at the subtleties of everyday behaviors like distinguishing art from everything else, the intuitive sense of fairness that children display, and the feeling of pleasure. That last topic resulted in a book, How Pleasure Works, in which Bloom shows how the most obvious factors—a catchy melody or mouthwatering smells—don't explain pleasure fully. "Pleasure is affected by deeper factors, including what the person thinks about the true essence of what he or she is getting pleasure from," he notes in the book. 

Expectations shape experience. Wine experts overwhelmingly rated a Bordeaux labeled "grand cru classé" as worth drinking. Few chose the same wine when it was marked "vin du table." Even more remarkably, when experts were served white wine in black glasses and told to describe the red they were tasting, they reported "jamminess" and "red fruit" flavors. 

One response is to marvel at the foolishness of experts. But few of us would be any different. "Everybody thinks they are the exception," Bloom says. "They see the world as it really is. They aren't influenced by background knowledge. It's hard to fight that feeling. It's hard to deny the evidence of our senses. It doesn't feel like we're being influenced." 

Bloom says that pleasure is synthesized from multiple sources. Oenophiles aren't likely to confuse water or vinegar and wine, but when the taste and smell are in the right ballpark, other factors come into play without our being aware. "What matters most is not the world as it appears to our senses," Bloom writes. "Rather, the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think that thing is." Drawing on cognitive-science research, he describes humans as essentialists, meaning that we intuitively assume that things and other people have hidden, underlying natures. What we believe about the essence of what we encounter defines our impressions and experiences.

If we went by our senses alone, a block of gold and an indistinguishable gold-colored block would be worth the same. But even if chemical analysis were the only way to distinguish them, we would still believe one is worthless while the other is extremely valuable. While that value might reflect a market reality, the existence of the market itself can be traced back to a belief about the essence of gold. If flavor alone mattered, a beautifully prepared steak could taste delicious even after the chef announced it didn't come from a cow but from a Great Dane. 

Bottled water offers an interesting case study of how several factors can be layered in our choice of products and the pleasure they give us. When people choose bottled water over tap, they're paying for something that can be free. "I take seriously the idea that we purchase bottled water as a form of costly signaling," Bloom says. "If you are drinking bottled water, you are showing the world you are rich enough that you can pay for water, which is sort of a strange thing to pay for."

Taste certainly isn't the deciding factor. The CEO of Perrier North America once picked his product fifth out of seven samples in a blind taste test. Bloom sees this as further evidence of the signaling theory. "It is important for this theory that these things aren't much better. If bottled water tasted much better, then having it wouldn't signal that you are richer than everyone else," he says. "If a Rolex were better at telling time than a knockoff, there would be a practical reason for having the Rolex, and it wouldn't be as impressive."

However, in addition to the signaling, Bloom sees essentialism underlying the pleasure. When we understand something as authentic or special or unique, that is foundational to our experience of it. "People can intellectually appreciate you can buy something just the same as a Rolex in every physical way for a tenth the price," Bloom says. "You can show them two art works that even experts can't tell apart. Still you want the original Rolex. You want the Picasso rather than the knockoff."

"People often have the wrong ideas about pleasure," he adds. "They often think caring about who created an artwork or caring where something came from is an irrational form of snobbery that they should avoid. My argument is that is simply the way the mind works. My claim is that it is not just flim-flam. It is not people saying they enjoy these things more to show off. You enjoy the Rolex much more if you believe it is an original and not a knockoff."

A study found that Coke gave more pleasure when consumed from a cup with a brand logo. In another study, subjects drank Coke and Pepsi squirted into their mouths while they were in an fMRI machine. The scan showed that during a blind taste test, only the "reward center" of the brain activated; when the subjects were told which brand they were tasting, multiple parts of the brain activated as the participants shifted to their pre-existing brand preferences.

"People believe there is a difference and it is very hard to dissuade us," Bloom says. But being unable to distinguish Coke from Pepsi or Perrier from tap water doesn't necessarily lead to any change in preference. "Blind taste tests and chemical analyses don't quite cut it because when I believe I'm drinking Perrier, it does taste different. I think you actually taste the bottled water as different if you believe it comes from a pure source. We really do enjoy these things more, because that is how pleasure works."

Bloom acknowledges that marketers have long understood what science is only now revealing. "It may not be necessary or even possible to make a product physically better at what it does," he says. "What you want to do instead is tell people things about the product that make it more pleasurable. Tell them it is special—it's very old or it's very new. It's what the celebrities use. It was made on an estate in Scotland. It was made in the finest laboratories. You give it a story and people's experience resonates with the story."

This does more than simply position a product. "Marketers would be selling themselves short if they thought it just got people to buy the product. The stories influence how the people experience the product," Bloom says. 

Another lesson from the research on pleasure: learn a lot about the things you enjoy. "People who know a lot about wine are going to enjoy wine more than people who don't. It's the same for movies, and food, and art, and so on," Bloom says. "Knowing more about it, you make discriminations, you categorize things better, and you can increase your pleasure. This is obvious with something like classical music, but I think it is true for everything." Even chocolate.

For more on Paul Bloom's work, see his website.

Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, Yale University