Why are we so concerned with the origins of objects? Why do we respond so much to our knowledge of where something comes from, whether it’s a forgery, whether it belonged to a celebrity, or whether we are related to someone or not?
Well, many sociologists like Thorstein Veblen and Alan Wolfe would argue that the reason why we take origins so seriously is because we’re snobs; because we’re focused on status. Among other things, if you want to show off how rich or how powerful you are, it’s always better to own an original than a forgery because there will always be fewer originals than forgeries. But there’s something else going on. Humans are, to some extent, natural-born essentialists.
What I mean by this is that we don’t just respond to things as we see, feel, or hear them. Rather, our response is conditioned by our beliefs of where things come from, what they’re made of, or what their hidden nature is. I believe that this is true, not just for how we think about things, but how we react to things.
This phenomenon suggests that pleasure is deep—and that this isn’t true just for higher-level pleasures like art. Even our most seemingly simple pleasures are affected by our beliefs about hidden essences.
Take food. Here’s a pop quiz. Would you eat some unknown pieces of what looks like meat?
Well, a good answer is, “It depends. What is it?” Some of you would eat it if it were pork, but not beef. Some of you would eat it if it were beef, but not pork. Few of you would eat it if it were a rat or a human. Some of you would eat this only if these were strangely colored pieces of tofu. That’s not so surprising.
What’s more interesting is that how it tastes to you will depend critically on what you think you’re eating. One demonstration of this was done with young children. How do you make children eat more carrots and drink milk—and not just eat more, but get more pleasure from eating carrots and drinking milk, to actually get them to think they taste better? It’s simple: You tell them the carrots and milk are from McDonald’s. They believe McDonald’s food is tastier, and it leads them to experience it as tastier.
You can use the same strategy to get adults to enjoy any type of wine. It’s very simple: pour the wine from an expensive bottle. There are now dozens, perhaps hundreds, of studies showing that if you believe you’re drinking the expensive stuff, it tastes better to you. This was recently tested with a neuroscientific twist. Researchers placed participants into a dMRI scanner and had them sip wine through a tube while they lay there. On a screen in front of each subject was information about the wine. Everybody, of course, was drinking exactly the same wine. But among those who believed they were drinking the expensive stuff, parts of the brain associated with pleasure and reward lit up like a Christmas tree. It’s not just that they said it was more pleasurable or they liked it more: They really experienced it in a different way.
Here’s a particularly dramatic example of how pleasure depends on our beliefs, illustrated by a case study of a woman with a neurological disorder known as Capgras syndrome. Capgras is a disorder that causes sufferers to believe a specific delusion—that the people they love most in the world have been replaced by perfect duplicates. Often, the result of Capgras syndrome is tragic. People have murdered those they loved, believing they were murdering an imposter. But there’s at least one case where Capgras syndrome had a happy ending. This was recorded in 1931. Researchers described a woman with Capgras syndrome who complained about “her poorly endowed and sexually inadequate lover.” But that was before she got Capgras syndrome. After she got it, she was happy to report that she had “discovered that he possessed a double who was rich, virile, handsome, and aristocratic.” Of course, it was the same man, but she was seeing him in different ways.
A more recent illustration of essentialism has to do with the pleasure of listening to music. You may have heard of Joshua Bell, the famous violinist. A Washington Post reporter, Gene Weingarten, decided to enlist him for an audacious experiment. Weingarten wanted to find out how much people would like the music of Joshua Bell if they didn’t know they were listening to Joshua Bell.
So Weingarten got Bell to take his million-dollar violin down to a Washington, D.C., subway station, stand in the corner, and see how much money he would make as a street musician. After being there for 45 minutes, he made $32. Not bad for an everyday busker. But for a professional classical musician who regularly sells out concert venues? Not good. Apparently, to really enjoy the music of Joshua Bell, you have to know you’re listening to Joshua Bell.
All of the examples I’ve shared are about pleasure, but essentialism—how you think about what you’re experiencing and your beliefs about the essence of it—also affects how we experience pain.
Harvard’s Kurt Gray and Daniel M. Wegner hooked up undergraduates to an electric shock machine, and then gave them a series of five painful electric shocks. Half of the students were told that they were being given the shocks by a person in another room. They were also told that the person in the other room didn’t know they were giving the shocks. In other words, there was no malevolence. They were just pressing a button. The first shock was recorded as very painful. The second shock felt less painful because the students got a bit used to it. The third shock dropped again, as did the fourth and the fifth. The pain had a lesser and lesser effect.
In the other group, students were told that the person in the next room was shocking them on purpose. The first shock hurt like hell. The second shock hurt just as much, as did the third, fourth, and fifth shocks. Conclusion: It hurts more if you believe somebody is doing something to you on purpose.
Of course, in some cases, pain under the right circumstances can transform into pleasure. Humans have an extraordinarily interesting tendency to seek out low-level doses of pain in controlled circumstances and take pleasure from it. Eating hot chili peppers and going on roller coaster rides are two examples.
While pain for pleasure is the most extreme example of an essentialist experience, it underscores in how many areas of life we seek out essential pleasures. The poet John Milton has one of the best descriptions of how essentialism influences our everyday pleasures—and pains—while still being as relevant today as it was when Milton was writing in the 17th. “The mind is its own place,” he observed. “And in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”