“The interview took place in the workshop of a dominatrix, with the man strapped on his back onto a worktable, wearing a latex bodysuit and a mask with an opening only for his mouth. Attached to the shaft of his penis was a conductive ring that led to a small machine. The dominatrix wired up the machine to generate electrical shocks at the sound of speech.”
The story of this man is just one of many Paul Bloom analyzes in his book “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.” “How Pleasure Works” covers a wide range of topics, many of which may seem weird and even gruesome to some, but all are addressed with extreme tact and zero judgment. His writing style is simple and lucid enough to capture and hold the attention of a wide audience and facilitate an informative journey through his theories.
As the book opens, Paul Bloom — one of our own psychology professors here at Yale — explains exactly what his argument is and what he has set out to do: prove that essentialism guides our preferences — that is, that what we believe is the essence of an object or a person is what attracts us to it. The 221 pages of Bloom’s witty account feel like a one-on-one conversation with the author, in which he incorporates his own experimental results among other sources. The book is not heavy reading and when scientific terms are used they are perfectly understandable in context — no background knowledge needed.
What is great about this book is that you can read it by parts. The division of “How Pleasure Works” allows one to read each chapter in no specific order or even come back to the book after a long period of time without being disoriented. It’s almost like a handbook that you can reference.
This is not to say that the book does not have flow and a unifying argument — it does. In fact, each chapter represents a different category of preference and convinces you that taste has to do with what one perceives is the essence of something. Bloom explains that our tastes may be rooted in what we need for survival and reproduction, but now that “we have evolved essentialism to help us make sense of the world … it pushes our desires in directions that have nothing to do with survival and reproduction.”
For example, the fact that we are willing to pay very high prices for items owned by celebrities shows that we attach a person’s essence to an item. The man who bought a tape measure owned by John Kennedy for $50,000 would not pay that price for just any tape measure, and certainly this tape measure did not help him survive or reproduce. Our preconceived notions of something affect its value.
Although Bloom does not make any astounding new scientific claims, he makes an original argument and describes a psychological process that is beneficial to understand. That is, being able to analyze one’s own affinities and that of others may be useful in life. For instance, Bloom explains that familiarity contributes to how attractive we find others. And whether a person is smiling when first encountered is the main contributing factor to this assessment. Furthermore, he explains that the most important characteristic people look for in a potential partner is kindness. Being aware of such things may affect one’s day-to-day interactions.
Scientific revelations aside, I feel “How Pleasure Works” is the best source I have ever read on random facts and intriguing historical occurrences. Paul Bloom uses incredibly interesting digressions on his journey to proving his point. After reading his book, I know that Shakespeare coined the term “bedtricks”; the word cuckolds comes from “cuckoo,” a bird that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests; the Hebrew Bible uses the word “virgin” 700 times; and that babies prefer looking at females. I also know what was on Charles Darwin’s pro/con list when he was debating whether or not he should get married. (This list is found on page 81, in case you are having the same dilemma.)
“How Pleasure Works” is an unbiased adventure through the rationale behind the interesting, the cute, the gross and the unimaginably strange preferences that humans have.