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TEDGlobal 2011

Paul Bloom: The origins of pleasure

July 13, 2011

Why do we like an original painting better than a forgery? Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that human beings are essentialists -- that our beliefs about the history of an object change how we experience it, not simply as an illusion, but as a deep feature of what pleasure (and pain) is.

Paul Bloom - Psychologist
Paul Bloom explores some of the most puzzling aspects of human nature, including pleasure, religion, and morality. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm going to talk today
00:15
about the pleasures of everyday life.
00:17
But I want to begin with a story
00:19
of an unusual and terrible man.
00:21
This is Hermann Goering.
00:23
Goering was Hitler's second in command in World War II,
00:25
his designated successor.
00:28
And like Hitler,
00:30
Goering fancied himself a collector of art.
00:32
He went through Europe, through World War II,
00:34
stealing, extorting and occasionally buying
00:36
various paintings for his collection.
00:39
And what he really wanted was something by Vermeer.
00:41
Hitler had two of them, and he didn't have any.
00:44
So he finally found an art dealer,
00:47
a Dutch art dealer named Han van Meegeren,
00:49
who sold him a wonderful Vermeer
00:52
for the cost of what would now be 10 million dollars.
00:54
And it was his favorite artwork ever.
00:57
World War II came to an end,
01:00
and Goering was captured, tried at Nuremberg
01:02
and ultimately sentenced to death.
01:05
Then the Allied forces went through his collections
01:08
and found the paintings
01:10
and went after the people who sold it to him.
01:12
And at some point the Dutch police came into Amsterdam
01:14
and arrested Van Meegeren.
01:17
Van Meegeren was charged with the crime of treason,
01:19
which is itself punishable by death.
01:22
Six weeks into his prison sentence,
01:25
van Meegeren confessed.
01:27
But he didn't confess to treason.
01:29
He said, "I did not sell a great masterpiece
01:31
to that Nazi.
01:34
I painted it myself; I'm a forger."
01:36
Now nobody believed him.
01:39
And he said, "I'll prove it.
01:42
Bring me a canvas and some paint,
01:44
and I will paint a Vermeer much better
01:46
than I sold that disgusting Nazi.
01:48
I also need alcohol and morphine, because it's the only way I can work."
01:50
(Laughter)
01:53
So they brought him in.
01:55
He painted a beautiful Vermeer.
01:57
And then the charges of treason were dropped.
02:00
He had a lesser charge of forgery,
02:03
got a year sentence
02:05
and died a hero to the Dutch people.
02:07
There's a lot more to be said about van Meegeren,
02:11
but I want to turn now to Goering,
02:14
who's pictured here being interrogated at Nuremberg.
02:16
Now Goering was, by all accounts, a terrible man.
02:19
Even for a Nazi, he was a terrible man.
02:21
His American interrogators described him
02:24
as an amicable psychopath.
02:27
But you could feel sympathy
02:29
for the reaction he had
02:31
when he was told that his favorite painting
02:33
was actually a forgery.
02:35
According to his biographer,
02:37
"He looked as if for the first time
02:39
he had discovered there was evil in the world."
02:41
(Laughter)
02:43
And he killed himself soon afterwards.
02:46
He had discovered after all
02:49
that the painting he thought was this
02:51
was actually that.
02:53
It looked the same,
02:56
but it had a different origin, it was a different artwork.
02:58
It wasn't just him who was in for a shock.
03:00
Once van Meegeren was on trial, he couldn't stop talking.
03:02
And he boasted about all the great masterpieces
03:05
that he himself had painted
03:07
that were attributed to other artists.
03:09
In particular, "The Supper at Emmaus"
03:11
which was viewed as Vermeer's finest masterpiece, his best work --
03:13
people would come [from] all over the world to see it --
03:16
was actually a forgery.
03:19
It was not that painting, but that painting.
03:21
And when that was discovered,
03:23
it lost all its value and was taken away from the museum.
03:25
Why does this matter?
03:28
I'm a psychologists -- why do origins matter so much?
03:30
Why do we respond so much
03:33
to our knowledge of where something comes from?
03:35
Well there's an answer that many people would give.
03:38
Many sociologists like Veblen and Wolfe
03:40
would argue that the reason why we take origins so seriously
03:43
is because we're snobs, because we're focused on status.
03:46
Among other things,
03:49
if you want to show off how rich you are, how powerful you are,
03:51
it's always better to own an original than a forgery
03:53
because there's always going to be fewer originals than forgeries.
03:55
I don't doubt that that plays some role,
03:59
but what I want to convince you of today
04:01
is that there's something else going on.
04:03
I want to convince you
04:05
that humans are, to some extent, natural born essentialists.
04:07
What I mean by this
04:10
is we don't just respond to things as we see them,
04:12
or feel them, or hear them.
04:14
Rather, our response is conditioned on our beliefs,
04:16
about what they really are, what they came from,
04:19
what they're made of, what their hidden nature is.
04:22
I want to suggest that this is true,
04:25
not just for how we think about things,
04:27
but how we react to things.
04:29
So I want to suggest that pleasure is deep --
04:31
and that this isn't true
04:33
just for higher level pleasures like art,
04:35
but even the most seemingly simple pleasures
04:38
are affected by our beliefs about hidden essences.
04:41
So take food.
04:44
Would you eat this?
04:46
Well, a good answer is, "It depends. What is it?"
04:48
Some of you would eat it if it's pork, but not beef.
04:51
Some of you would eat it if it's beef, but not pork.
04:53
Few of you would eat it if it's a rat
04:56
or a human.
04:58
Some of you would eat it only if it's a strangely colored piece of tofu.
05:00
That's not so surprising.
05:04
But what's more interesting
05:06
is how it tastes to you
05:08
will depend critically on what you think you're eating.
05:10
So one demonstration of this was done with young children.
05:13
How do you make children
05:16
not just be more likely to eat carrots and drink milk,
05:18
but to get more pleasure from eating carrots and drinking milk --
05:21
to think they taste better?
05:24
It's simple, you tell them they're from McDonald's.
05:26
They believe McDonald's food is tastier,
05:29
and it leads them to experience it as tastier.
05:31
How do you get adults to really enjoy wine?
05:34
It's very simple:
05:36
pour it from an expensive bottle.
05:38
There are now dozens, perhaps hundreds of studies showing
05:40
that if you believe you're drinking the expensive stuff,
05:43
it tastes better to you.
05:45
This was recently done with a neuroscientific twist.
05:47
They get people into a fMRI scanner,
05:50
and while they're lying there, through a tube,
05:52
they get to sip wine.
05:54
In front of them on a screen is information about the wine.
05:56
Everybody, of course,
05:59
drinks exactly the same wine.
06:01
But if you believe you're drinking expensive stuff,
06:03
parts of the brain associated with pleasure and reward
06:06
light up like a Christmas tree.
06:09
It's not just that you say it's more pleasurable, you say you like it more,
06:11
you really experience it in a different way.
06:14
Or take sex.
06:17
These are stimuli I've used in some of my studies.
06:20
And if you simply show people these pictures,
06:23
they'll say these are fairly attractive people.
06:26
But how attractive you find them,
06:28
how sexually or romantically moved you are by them,
06:31
rests critically on who you think you're looking at.
06:34
You probably think the picture on the left is male,
06:37
the one on the right is female.
06:40
If that belief turns out to be mistaken, it will make a difference.
06:42
(Laughter)
06:45
It will make a difference if they turn out to be
06:47
much younger or much older than you think they are.
06:49
It will make a difference if you were to discover
06:52
that the person you're looking at with lust
06:54
is actually a disguised version of your son or daughter,
06:56
your mother or father.
06:58
Knowing somebody's your kin typically kills the libido.
07:00
Maybe one of the most heartening findings
07:03
from the psychology of pleasure
07:05
is there's more to looking good than your physical appearance.
07:07
If you like somebody, they look better to you.
07:10
This is why spouses in happy marriages
07:13
tend to think that their husband or wife
07:16
looks much better than anyone else thinks that they do.
07:18
(Laughter)
07:21
A particularly dramatic example of this
07:23
comes from a neurological disorder known as Capgras syndrome.
07:26
So Capgras syndrome is a disorder
07:29
where you get a specific delusion.
07:32
Sufferers of Capgras syndrome
07:34
believe that the people they love most in the world
07:36
have been replaced by perfect duplicates.
07:38
Now often, a result of Capgras syndrome is tragic.
07:40
People have murdered those that they loved,
07:43
believing that they were murdering an imposter.
07:45
But there's at least one case
07:48
where Capgras syndrome had a happy ending.
07:50
This was recorded in 1931.
07:52
"Research described a woman with Capgras syndrome
07:54
who complained about her poorly endowed and sexually inadequate lover."
07:57
But that was before she got Capgras syndrome.
08:00
After she got it, "She was happy to report
08:03
that she has discovered that he possessed a double
08:05
who was rich, virile, handsome and aristocratic."
08:08
Of course, it was the same man,
08:10
but she was seeing him in different ways.
08:12
As a third example,
08:14
consider consumer products.
08:16
So one reason why you might like something is its utility.
08:18
You can put shoes on your feet; you can play golf with golf clubs;
08:21
and chewed up bubble gum doesn't do anything at all for you.
08:24
But each of these three objects has value
08:27
above and beyond what it can do for you
08:29
based on its history.
08:31
The golf clubs were owned by John F. Kennedy
08:33
and sold for three-quarters of a million dollars at auction.
08:36
The bubble gum was chewed up by pop star Britney Spears
08:39
and sold for several hundreds of dollars.
08:42
And in fact, there's a thriving market
08:44
in the partially eaten food of beloved people.
08:46
(Laughter)
08:49
The shoes are perhaps the most valuable of all.
08:51
According to an unconfirmed report,
08:54
a Saudi millionaire offered 10 million dollars
08:56
for this pair of shoes.
08:58
They were the ones thrown at George Bush
09:00
at an Iraqi press conference several years ago.
09:03
(Applause)
09:05
Now this attraction to objects
09:07
doesn't just work for celebrity objects.
09:09
Each one of us, most people,
09:11
have something in our life that's literally irreplaceable,
09:13
in that it has value because of its history --
09:16
maybe your wedding ring, maybe your child's baby shoes --
09:19
so that if it was lost, you couldn't get it back.
09:22
You could get something that looked like it or felt like it,
09:25
but you couldn't get the same object back.
09:27
With my colleagues George Newman and Gil Diesendruck,
09:30
we've looked to see what sort of factors, what sort of history, matters
09:33
for the objects that people like.
09:36
So in one of our experiments,
09:38
we asked people to name a famous person who they adored,
09:40
a living person they adored.
09:43
So one answer was George Clooney.
09:45
Then we asked them,
09:47
"How much would you pay for George Clooney's sweater?"
09:49
And the answer is a fair amount --
09:51
more than you would pay for a brand new sweater
09:53
or a sweater owned by somebody who you didn't adore.
09:56
Then we asked other groups of subjects --
09:59
we gave them different restrictions
10:01
and different conditions.
10:03
So for instance, we told some people,
10:05
"Look, you can buy the sweater,
10:07
but you can't tell anybody you own it,
10:09
and you can't resell it."
10:11
That drops the value of it,
10:13
suggesting that that's one reason why we like it.
10:15
But what really causes an effect
10:18
is you tell people, "Look, you could resell it, you could boast about it,
10:20
but before it gets to you,
10:23
it's thoroughly washed."
10:25
That causes a huge drop in the value.
10:27
As my wife put it, "You've washed away the Clooney cooties."
10:30
(Laughter)
10:33
So let's go back to art.
10:35
I would love a Chagall. I love the work of Chagall.
10:37
If people want to get me something at the end of the conference,
10:39
you could buy me a Chagall.
10:41
But I don't want a duplicate,
10:43
even if I can't tell the difference.
10:45
That's not because, or it's not simply because,
10:47
I'm a snob and want to boast about having an original.
10:49
Rather, it's because I want something that has a specific history.
10:52
In the case of artwork,
10:55
the history is special indeed.
10:57
The philosopher Denis Dutton
10:59
in his wonderful book "The Art Instinct"
11:01
makes the case that, "The value of an artwork
11:03
is rooted in assumptions about the human performance underlying its creation."
11:05
And that could explain the difference
11:08
between an original and a forgery.
11:10
They may look alike, but they have a different history.
11:12
The original is typically the product of a creative act,
11:14
the forgery isn't.
11:17
I think this approach can explain differences
11:19
in people's taste in art.
11:22
This is a work by Jackson Pollock.
11:24
Who here likes the work of Jackson Pollock?
11:26
Okay. Who here, it does nothing for them?
11:30
They just don't like it.
11:32
I'm not going to make a claim about who's right,
11:35
but I will make an empirical claim
11:37
about people's intuitions,
11:39
which is that, if you like the work of Jackson Pollock,
11:41
you'll tend more so than the people who don't like it
11:43
to believe that these works are difficult to create,
11:46
that they require a lot of time and energy
11:49
and creative energy.
11:51
I use Jackson Pollock on purpose as an example
11:53
because there's a young American artist
11:56
who paints very much in the style of Jackson Pollock,
11:58
and her work was worth
12:00
many tens of thousands of dollars --
12:02
in large part because she's a very young artist.
12:04
This is Marla Olmstead
12:06
who did most of her work when she was three years old.
12:08
The interesting thing about Marla Olmstead
12:10
is her family made the mistake
12:12
of inviting the television program 60 Minutes II into their house
12:14
to film her painting.
12:18
And they then reported that her father was coaching her.
12:20
When this came out on television,
12:23
the value of her art dropped to nothing.
12:25
It was the same art, physically,
12:28
but the history had changed.
12:30
I've been focusing now on the visual arts,
12:33
but I want to give two examples from music.
12:35
This is Joshua Bell, a very famous violinist.
12:37
And the Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten
12:39
decided to enlist him for an audacious experiment.
12:42
The question is: How much would people like Joshua Bell,
12:45
the music of Joshua Bell,
12:47
if they didn't know they were listening to Joshua Bell?
12:49
So he got Joshua Bell to take his million dollar violin
12:53
down to a Washington D.C. subway station
12:56
and stand in the corner and see how much money he would make.
12:59
And here's a brief clip of this.
13:02
(Violin music)
13:04
After being there for three-quarters of an hour,
13:11
he made 32 dollars.
13:13
Not bad. It's also not good.
13:16
Apparently to really enjoy the music of Joshua Bell,
13:18
you have to know you're listening to Joshua Bell.
13:21
He actually made 20 dollars more than that,
13:24
but he didn't count it.
13:26
Because this woman comes up --
13:28
you see at the end of the video -- she comes up.
13:30
She had heard him at the Library of Congress a few weeks before
13:32
at this extravagant black-tie affair.
13:34
So she's stunned that he's standing in a subway station.
13:37
So she's struck with pity.
13:40
She reaches into her purse and hands him a 20.
13:42
(Laughter)
13:44
(Applause)
13:46
The second example from music
13:48
is from John Cage's modernist composition,
13:50
"4'33"."
13:52
As many of you know,
13:54
this is the composition where the pianist sits at a bench,
13:56
opens up the piano
13:59
and sits and does nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds --
14:01
that period of silence.
14:03
And people have different views on this.
14:05
But what I want to point out
14:07
is you can buy this from iTunes.
14:09
(Laughter)
14:11
For a dollar 99,
14:13
you can listen to that silence,
14:15
which is different than other forms of silence.
14:17
(Laughter)
14:20
Now I've been talking so far about pleasure,
14:22
but what I want to suggest
14:25
is that everything I've said applies as well to pain.
14:27
And how you think about what you're experiencing,
14:30
your beliefs about the essence of it,
14:32
affect how it hurts.
14:34
One lovely experiment
14:36
was done by Kurt Gray and Dan Wegner.
14:38
What they did was they hooked up Harvard undergraduates
14:40
to an electric shock machine.
14:42
And they gave them a series of painful electric shocks.
14:44
So it was a series of five painful shocks.
14:47
Half of them are told that they're being given the shocks
14:50
by somebody in another room,
14:52
but the person in the other room doesn't know they're giving them shocks.
14:54
There's no malevolence, they're just pressing a button.
14:57
The first shock is recorded as very painful.
14:59
The second shock feels less painful, because you get a bit used to it.
15:02
The third drops, the fourth, the fifth.
15:05
The pain gets less.
15:07
In the other condition,
15:10
they're told that the person in the next room
15:12
is shocking them on purpose -- knows they're shocking them.
15:14
The first shock hurts like hell.
15:17
The second shock hurts just as much,
15:19
and the third and the fourth and the fifth.
15:21
It hurts more
15:23
if you believe somebody is doing it to you on purpose.
15:25
The most extreme example of this
15:28
is that in some cases,
15:31
pain under the right circumstances
15:33
can transform into pleasure.
15:35
Humans have this extraordinarily interesting property
15:37
that will often seek out low-level doses of pain
15:40
in controlled circumstances
15:42
and take pleasure from it --
15:44
as in the eating of hot chili peppers
15:46
and roller coaster rides.
15:48
The point was nicely summarized
15:51
by the poet John Milton
15:53
who wrote, "The mind is its own place,
15:55
and in itself can make a heaven of hell,
15:57
a hell of heaven."
15:59
And I'll end with that. Thank you.
16:01
(Applause)
16:03

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Paul Bloom - Psychologist
Paul Bloom explores some of the most puzzling aspects of human nature, including pleasure, religion, and morality.

Why you should listen

In Paul Bloom’s last book, How Pleasure Works, he explores the often-mysterious enjoyment that people get out of experiences such as sex, food, art, and stories. His latest book, Just Babies, examines the nature and origins of good and evil. How do we decide what's fair and unfair? What is the relationship between emotion and rationality in our judgments of right and wrong? And how much of morality is present at birth? To answer these questions, he and his colleagues at Yale study how babies make moral decisions. (How do you present a moral quandary to a 6-month-old? Through simple, gamelike experiments that yield surprisingly adult-like results.)  

Paul Bloom is a passionate teacher of undergraduates, and his popular Introduction to Psychology 110 class has been released to the world through the Open Yale Courses program. He has recently completed a second MOOC, “Moralities of Everyday Life”, that introduced moral psychology to tens of thousands of students. And he also presents his research to a popular audience though articles in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. Many of the projects he works on are student-initiated, and all of them, he notes, are "strongly interdisciplinary, bringing in theory and research from areas such as cognitive, social, and developmental psychology, evolutionary theory, linguistics, theology and philosophy." 

He says: "A growing body of evidence suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life."

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