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Psychology text ‘How Pleasure Works’ gets to the root of our likes and dislikes

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The Details

How Pleasure Works
Five stars
By Paul Bloom, W. W. Norton & Company, $27

It doesn’t take a Yale psychology professor to figure out why I loved Paul Bloom’s new book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We like What We Like. Bloom (a Yale psychology professor) argues that we don’t always derive pleasure from our senses—we don’t always prefer the fattiest hamburger or the biggest boobs. We derive pleasure, Bloom says, from essences. That’s why we prefer the real Cezanne to the identical knockoff, why we won’t try on Hitler’s sweater and why we cling so tightly to that broken plastic locket our grandma gave us on her deathbed.

The senses, it turns out, are often terrible at determining what makes us happy. “If you grind up a product called ‘Canned Turkey & Chicken Formulate for Puppies/Active Dogs’ in a food processor,” Bloom writes, “and garnish it with parsley, people cannot reliably distinguish it from duck liver mousse, pork liver pate, liverwurst or Spam.”

See, it’s not about what our senses prefer; it’s about what we think our senses prefer. “The problem with human flesh,” according to Bloom, “is not that it tastes bad in some objective sense. By all accounts, if you like pork, you would be perfectly comfortable eating a person, so long as you didn’t know what you were eating.”

Bloom discusses fascinating topics (undercover violinists, feces-shaped chocolate fudge, duplication machines), quotes my favorite writers (A.J. Jacobs, Steven Johnson, Yasmina Reza), and ties everything together with a counterintuitive, well-supported thesis. In doing so, he’s created the most pleasurable psychology book of the year.

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