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How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like Hardcover – June 14, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Bloom (Descartes' Baby), a psychology professor at Yale, explores pleasure from evolutionary and social perspectives, distancing himself from the subject's common association with the senses. By examining studies and anecdotes of pleasure-inducing activities like eating, art, sex, and shopping, Bloom posits that pleasure takes us closer to the essence of a thing, be it animal, vegetable, or mineral. He argues that humans seem to be hard-wired to give, as well as receive, pleasure. A study using mislabeled, cheap bottles of wine, wherein "Forty experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only twelve said this of the cheap label," demonstrates the complicated sociological components behind what we find pleasurable. Bloom even briefly examines positive reactions to very hot food and other "controlled doses of pain." And a study where rhesus monkeys chose pictures of female hindquarters and high-status monkeys over fruit juice allows the author to surmise that "Two major vices-pornography and celebrity worship-are not exclusively human."
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“[A] book that is different from the slew already out there on the general subject of happiness. No advice here about how to become happier by organizing your closest; Bloom is after something deeper than the mere stuff of feeling good.” (The New York Times Book Review)

“Engaging, evocative… Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, is a supple, clear writer, and his parade of counter-intuitive claims about pleasure is beguiling.” (Michael Washburn - NPR)

“Is there anyone who could resist a book about sex, food, art, and fun? Didn’t think so. This book is about all those things, but what turns it from a guilty pleasure into a guiltless one is its deep understanding of philosophy, developmental psychology, and evolutionary theory… How Pleasure Works should stoke your neurons into a frenzy and leave you wanting more.” (Mary Carmichael -

“Bloom covers food, sex and art at length and touches on much more in this accessible compendium of experiments, quotes, philosophical nuggets and anecdotes. Sigmund Freud, Mr. Pleasure Principle himself, would have approved.” (Katy Steinmetz - Time)

“Scholarly yet spy…. Bloom salts the book with all manner of pungent, apposite points…. A heartening, well-developed argument.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“A gracefully written book and a lot of fun.” (Peter D. Kramer - Slate)

“Drawing on his own research as well as studies in neuroscience, behavioral economics, and philosophy, [Bloom] makes a powerful argument for essentialism at the crux of human pleasure.” (Maywa Montenegro - Seed Magazine)

“In this eloquent and provocative book, Paul Bloom takes us inside the paradoxes of pleasure, exploring everything from cannibalism to Picasso to IKEA furniture. The quirks of delight, it turns out, are a delightful way to learn about the human mind.” (Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide)

“This book is not just a pleasure, but a revelation, by one of psychology’s deepest thinkers and best writers. Lucid and fascinating, you’ll want to read it slowly and savor the experience.” (Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness)

How Pleasure Works has one of the best discussions I’ve read of why art is pleasurable, why it matters to us, and why it moves us so.” (Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession)

“This book is a pearl, a work of great beauty and value, built up around a simple truth: that we are essentialists, tuned in to unseen order.” (Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (June 14, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393066320
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393066326
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #350,755 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

105 of 122 people found the following review helpful By _LARS_ on August 3, 2010
Format: Hardcover
With "new science" in the title, I was expecting more from this book. Although a few research studies are mentioned here and there this is more of a philosophical discussion resolving around an essentialist theory of pleasure than something based on scientific research. Whole sections consist of speculative discussions with no evidence to back them up. The author frequently cites works of fiction (e.g. Shakespeare) and passages from the bible to support his arguments. He also often resorts to hearsay with statements such as "some say that..." for support. The book also contains outdated information, for example that female estrus is hidden from males to promote pair bonding, which has since been dis-proven in laboratory tests that indicate that males can detect estrus. (Generally his presentation of conventional model of human sexuality and inequality is outdated. See Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality for more updated information.) The author also has an outdated human-centric view, suggesting that only humans have meta-representation and theory of mind, despite quite a bit of recent evidence to the contrary.
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46 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Avid Reader on June 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
How Pleasure Works is a great book - it's entertaining and informative, and also surprising - as well as surprisingly funny. It examines different sources of pleasure - from food, to sex, to art, different forms of entertainment, and so on - and discusses recent findings in cognitive science (including a few of the author's own) that tell us about the surprisingly complex and sometimes deeply puzzling nature of human pleasure. The author argues that pleasure is not primarily a response to certain perceptual & sensory experiences, but instead has a significant cognitive component - what we think about something (whether or not we're correct) has a huge impact on how much pleasure we derive from it. The book contains many examples, which range from mildly surprising, to deeply puzzling, to just plain weird; some are very funny. The author has a fresh, engaging and easy style of writing, unlike what one finds in many science books for the lay public - this is enormously fun to read. Opening it up to any random page you'll almost certainly find yourself pulled in and getting caught up in the discussion - this book is hard to put down!
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful By W. J. McMahon on August 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Interesting and well written from a philosophical point of view, but the title is very misleading. This book is more about something the author calls essentialism than pleasure. He does contend that pleasure is derived from this essentialism, but provides no scientific evidence to support that point. In fact the only science is this book amounts to a few scattered citings of psychological studies that happen buttress his philosophical arguments.
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27 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Read-Only on June 13, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Are you into cannibalism, incest, and wearing Hitler's sweater? If so, this book is for you! Actually, if not, then this book is even more for you. Bloom asks why it is that things have the power to please or upset us beyond their objective properties. Hitler's sweater is the same as any other sweater--it isn't evil; it never did anything wrong. So, why would it be so creepy to pull it on? Would you rather be kissed by your favorite movie star or his or her identical twin? Most people of course want the movie star... but why? Somehow, the way we think about the person and the kiss is just as important as the way the person looks and the physical act. Bloom explores such examples through domains such as sex, art, family, and food.

"How Pleasure Works" is a great read. The author skillfully draws you in to each topic with examples like Hitler's sweater and then describes relevant research that sheds light on why we like what we like. Unlike many such books, he does not get bogged down in details of experiments. Neither does the author talk down to the reader: He is congenial but not overly jokey. The pages seem to turn themselves.

At the end, the reader comes away with a greater appreciation for how complex our likes and dislikes are. However, many of the best examples (like incest and cannibalism) focus on what we DON'T like. The book's success can perhaps best be summed up by the fact that even when you are being disgusted by such examples, you still get pleasure from reading about them.
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23 of 31 people found the following review helpful By G Carter on February 17, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A lot of ivy league professors are writing "cross-over" books for a general, but educated readership. But most of them are able to understand that doing so doesn't mean one has to write as if explaining things to total morons. This book is condescending and lacking any detail, nuance or rigor. It comes across as if he just churned out another book (with no original research, mind you) just to take a crack at some best-seller money. Moreover, the book doesn't even provide an answer for the question in the title or questions he raises in the text. So he is constantly posing interesting questions (e.g., Where, from his much-beloved biological point of view, do sexual fetishes come from? How does race play factor into "why we like what we like"?) Then he just forgets he ever posed it and talks about other matters that are more easily explained without considering how cultural/social reasons necessarily have to interact with the biological.) I bought this book because I wanted to learn about what new and interesting scholarship was being done in this field by scientists, and I assumed that because he was peddling it on NPR that it would be written for a reasonably intelligent audience. Instead, it was a lot of just-so stories about (mostly bad) experiments his friends and colleagues did, but written in a really cloying and coddling way, as if his readership cannot possibly hope to understand the important scientific "truths" he is handing down to them. The end result was that it was such a waste of time that when I finished it, I didn't donate it like usual. I actually threw it away so no one else would have to waste their time, either.
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