The Origins of Pleasure: Paul Bloom Explains Why We Like Expensive Wines & Original Paintings

Let’s say you spend a con­sid­er­able amount of mon­ey for a paint­ing by a not­ed artist. Or maybe you get it for a steal. Either way, the paint­ing hangs promi­nent­ly in your home, where it is admired by guests and brings you plea­sure every time you look at it, which is often. Years lat­er, you acci­den­tal­ly dis­cov­er that your paint­ing is not the work of the artist whose sig­na­ture graces the low­er right hand cor­ner of the can­vas, but rather a hereto­fore anony­mous forg­er.  How do you react?

Do you laugh and say, “When I think of all the hap­pi­ness that liv­ing with this beau­ti­ful image has brought me over the years, I feel I have got­ten my money’s worth many times over. I don’t care who paint­ed it!”

Or do you look as though you’ve just real­ized that evil exists in the world, which is how Hitler’s right hand man, Her­mann Göring, reput­ed­ly looked when, as a pris­on­er at Nurem­berg, he was informed that his beloved Ver­meer, ”Christ with the Woman Tak­en in Adul­tery” (below), was actu­al­ly the work of the Dutch deal­er who had sold it to him.


Göring’s reac­tion may have been the most human thing about him. Accord­ing to Yale psy­chol­o­gist Paul Bloom, the plea­sure we take in the things we love is deeply informed by their per­ceived ori­gins. For­get mon­e­tary val­ue. For­get brag­ging rights. We need to believe that our paint­ing was not just paint­ed by Ver­meer, but han­dled by him, breathed upon him. If only that Ver­meer of mine could talk…I bet it could set­tle once and for all the exact nature of his rela­tion­ship with that lit­tle serv­ing girl. Remem­ber? The one with the pearl ear­ring?

Oh, wait. She was fic­tion­al. I for­got.

But that’s the sort of prove­nance we crave. The kind that comes with a sto­ry we can sink our teeth into.

The sto­ry must also fit the cir­cum­stances, as Bloom makes plain in his won­der­ful­ly enter­tain­ing TED talk on the Ori­gins of Plea­sure.

Unknow­ing­ly hop­ping in the sack with a blood rel­a­tive or eat­ing rat meat are intrigu­ing nar­ra­tives, pro­vid­ed they hap­pen to some­one else. Knowl­edge of such sto­ries could deep­en your con­nec­tion to a par­tic­u­lar piece of art.

(Can’t you feel the sex­u­al anguish ooz­ing out of my Ver­meer? Did you know he had to choose between buy­ing brush­es and buy­ing food?)

Not the sort of ori­gin sto­ry you’d want to find at the bot­tom of your own per­son­al soup bowl, how­ev­er.

Ergo, let us say that when it comes to plea­sure ema­nat­ing from food, we savor tastes we per­ceive as com­ing from whole­some organ­ic farms, arti­sanal oper­a­tions, restau­rants that are known to have passed the Board of Health’s san­i­tary inspec­tion with fly­ing col­ors. 

And when it comes to drink, we will will­ing­ly believe in the supe­ri­or fla­vor of any­thing poured under the aus­pices of an acclaimed label. Sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence con­firms this.

(On a relat­ed note, I once hung on to a bot­tle after drink­ing the lux­u­ry vod­ka it once con­tained, think­ing I’d refill it with a cheap liquor hack I had read about. The exper­i­ment end­ed when my hus­band com­plained that the water in our Bri­ta pitch­er tast­ed fun­ny.)

Speak­ing of roman­tic part­ners, it turns out that beau­ty tru­ly is not so much in the eye, but the brain of the behold­er. And it’s prob­a­bly not a bad idea to make sure you’ve got the facts regard­ing a poten­tial lover’s age, gen­der, and blood­lines. Caveat emp­tor, as any­one who’s ever seen the Cry­ing Game  will attest.

Note: Paul Bloom has taught a free course through Yale called “Intro­duc­tion to Psy­chol­o­gy,”. It’s avail­able in our col­lec­tion of Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy Cours­es, part of our larg­er col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why We Love Rep­e­ti­tion in Music: Explained in a New TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion

A Dar­win­ian The­o­ry of Beau­ty, or TED Does Its Best RSA

1756 TED Talks List­ed in a Neat Spread­sheet

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, home­school­er, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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