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Why Do We Like What We Like?

May 9, 2014
Originally published on August 12, 2016 7:22 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Brand Over Brain.

About Paul Bloom's TED Talk

Why do we like an original painting better than a perfect forgery? Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that our beliefs about the history of an object change how we experience it.

About Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University. He's author of the book How Pleasure Works, where he explores the primal (and sometimes pretentious) enjoyment that people get from food, art, and sex. His latest book, Just Babies, examines the nature and origins of good and evil.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And today's show - ideas around the power of brand over brain and why, as we heard a few minutes ago, most of us are completely convinced that Coca-Cola tastes better than RC or the Safeway brand.

PAUL BLOOM: And it does. Perrier tastes better than regular water so long as you know it's Perrier. I think in general our experiences are modulated, not just by our senses, but by our beliefs.

RAZ: This is Paul Bloom.

BLOOM: I'm a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University.

RAZ: And a lot of his work is focused on how human beings decide what's valuable and what isn't.

BLOOM: Someone isn't mistaken when they pay extra money for the better-known brand because it might lead to extra pleasure.

RAZ: But how do we decide? I mean, how do we decide what has value?

BLOOM: So you could value things for different reasons. You could value them because of their utility, what they could do for you. You know, so golf clubs can - you play golf with them. You know, a suit, you could wear.

But things get value in other ways as well. And often, they get value because of their history. So the golf clubs, if they were owned by John F. Kennedy, would sell for a lot. If the suit is an Armani suit, you might rather have it than if it's from a no-name brand, even if you know consciously that it's the same kind of suit, the same quality.

And so we get pleasure from - sometimes from knowing what something is and knowing where it came from. And our experience is transformed in that way.

RAZ: When he spoke on the TED stage, Paul Bloom opened with a story about origins and why they matter.


BLOOM: I'm going to talk today about the pleasures of everyday life. But I want to begin with a story of an unusual and terrible man. This is Hermann Goering. Goering was Hitler's second-in-command in World War II, his designated successor. And like Hitler, Goering fancied himself a collector of art. He went through Europe, through World War II stealing, extorting and occasionally buying various paintings for his collection.

And what he really wanted was something by Vermeer. Hitler had two of them, and he didn't have any. So he finally found an art dealer, a Dutch art dealer named Han van Meegeren who sold him a wonderful Vermeer for the cost of what would now be $10 million. And it was his favorite artwork ever. World War II came to an end, and Goering was captured, tried at Nuremberg and ultimately sentenced to death.

Then the Allied forces went through his collections and found the paintings and went after the people who sold it to him and arrested van Meegeren. Van Meegeren was charged with the crime of treason, which is itself punishable by death. Six weeks into his prison sentence, van Meegeren confessed. But he didn't confess to treason. He said, I did not sell a great masterpiece to that Nazi. I painted it myself. I'm a forger.


BLOOM: And he said, I'll prove it. Bring me a canvas and some paint, and I will paint a Vermeer much better than I sold that disgusting Nazi. I also need alcohol and morphine 'cause it's the only way I can work.


BLOOM: So they brought him in. He painted the beautiful Vermeer. And then he had - the charges of treason were dropped. He had a lesser charge of forgery, got a year sentence and died a hero to the Dutch people.

But I want to turn now to Goering, who is pictured here being interrogated at Nuremberg. Now, Goering was, by all accounts, a terrible man. Even for a Nazi, he was a terrible man. But you could feel sympathy for the reaction he had when he was told that his favorite painting was actually a forgery. According to his biographer, he looked as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil on Earth.


BLOOM: That just says something so amazing about the human mind. No other creature works that way. No other creature cares so much about history and branding and essence.

RAZ: Yeah. It's like that bourbon Pappy Van Winkle. Have you heard of this?

BLOOM: I have not.

RAZ: Yeah. They make, like, a very limited number of bottles. And it's this very, like, coveted item. And I had a tiny taste of it once, and, you know, it's just some very strong-tasting alcohol.

BLOOM: With a great name. Happy Van Winkle.

RAZ: Pappy Van Winkle.

BLOOM: Oh, Pappy Van Winkle.

RAZ: Pappy Van Winkle. Yes.

BLOOM: Even better.

RAZ: Even better, yeah.

BLOOM: So this is exactly an analogy with art. If there's a single painting, it's of great value. If there's 10, it's less. And if there's a hundred, it's less. And if there's a thousand, it's less.

So in many ways, you can make sense of what happens in the world of consumer products, like bourbon, by looking at how people respond to art. You could make a consumer product more valuable simply by having it scarce.


BLOOM: Why does this matter? I'm a psychologist. Why do origins matter so much? Why do we respond so much to our knowledge of where something comes from? Well, there's an answer that many people would give. Many sociologists like Veblen and Wolfe would argue that the reason why we take origins so seriously is 'cause we're snobs, 'cause we're focused on status.

I don't doubt that that plays some role. But what I want to convince you today is that there's something else going on. I want to convince you that humans are, to some extent, natural-born essentialists. What I mean by this is we don't just respond to things as we see them or feel them or hear them, rather our responses condition on our beliefs about what they really are, where they came from, what they're made of, what their hidden nature is.

RAZ: Isn't it weird a little bit, like, at our core, we're programmed to be, like, brand snobs?

BLOOM: I think it is weird, but I think it makes more sense when you see it as a byproduct of a more general fact about people, which is that we're essentialists. So for any sort of pleasure, not just consumer items, not just art items, we're obsessed with origin and history. So seen that way, the effect of brands isn't so strange. It's just a sort of modern, consumer manifestation of a more general fact about how our minds work.


BLOOM: Even the most seemingly simple pleasures are affected by our beliefs about hidden essences. So take food - how it tastes to you will depend critically on what you think you're eating. So one demonstration of this was done with young children. How do you make children, not just be more likely to eat carrots and drink milk, but to get more pleasure from eating carrots and drinking milk - to think they taste better? It's simple. You tell them they're from McDonald's.


BLOOM: They believe McDonald's food is tastier, and that leads them to experience it as tastier. How do you get adults to really enjoy wine? It's very simple. Pour it 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 done with a neuroscientific twist. They get people into an fMRI scanner, and while they're lying there, through a tube, they get to sip wine.


BLOOM: In front of them on a screen is information about the wine. Everybody of course drinks exactly the same wine. But if you believe you're drinking expensive stuff, parts of the brain associated with pleasure and reward light up like a Christmas tree. It's not just then you say it's more pleasurable, you say like more - you really experience it in a different way.

RAZ: So what is real doesn't matter? Like, what - it's what we believe that matters?

BLOOM: It's impossible to parcel them out. It's clear they both play a role, but the cool finding of research into branding is that we're also powerfully swayed by our belief system. And sometimes, our belief system can cause us to take something which would be typically of no value at all, and give it value.

RAZ: OK, so I recently had the best cup of coffee of my life. And the barista had, like, a handlebar mustache and I think, like, a monocle. Maybe I'm making that up. But he's telling me about this, like - this single-origin bean from Maui and the name of the person who roasted it the day before. And the water he pours over the grounds is, like...

BLOOM: Yeah.

RAZ: ...Exactly 197 degrees. And he hands me this cup. And he says, this is going to be the best cup of coffee of your life. And you know what?

BLOOM: Yeah. Yeah.

RAZ: It was. He was not lying.

BLOOM: He was not lying. But having told you all this, it got you in the state where you're ready to appreciate it.

RAZ: Yeah.

BLOOM: If it came out of the coffee urn at Alcoholics Anonymous, it may not have tasted quite so good.

RAZ: Yeah, even though it was the same exact coffee.

BLOOM: That's right.

RAZ: What if he served me Folgers crystals having told me all that?

BLOOM: Right, so it's a really good question what the limits are of branding and the limits are of our expectations and beliefs. So if someone served you really awful coffee after all of that spiel, I think that we do have sense organs for a reason. And we could say, boy, this is - you know, you really oversold this. This is not that good.

But we are, given all that, swayed by our beliefs. And it's not clear to me that this is irrational. In general, you could be wrong about facts about the world. It's harder to say that you're wrong about pleasure.

RAZ: Yeah.

BLOOM: I was - my wife hurt her back, and I was at Walgreens late last night. And I - just to pick up some sort of heating pads. And they had them lined up. And for about $10, they had a Walgreens heating pad. And for $20, they had something which looked exactly the same. And I got the more expensive one...

RAZ: Yeah.

BLOOM: ...'Cause I love her.

RAZ: 'Cause you love her.

BLOOM: That's right.

RAZ: 'Cause you would not love her as much if you paid half as much for the same product.

BLOOM: I mean, I've been defending the rationality of pleasure. But, look, I'll admit that given that we are creatures that pay attention to things like scarcity and background and so on, this means that we could be fooled. It means we could be tricked. It means you're going to see a lot of irrationality in the market and in our everyday life.

RAZ: I mean, this happens even to you, the guy who understands this intuitively, intellectually that we are all being manipulated and manipulating ourselves. I mean, you buy the more expensive heating pad. Like, even you fall victim to this whole thing.

BLOOM: I am a total sucker for these things. If you see me now, I am sort of - I have Apple products all around my body and next to me and everything.

RAZ: Yeah.

BLOOM: And to some extent, I like to tell myself it's an objective assessment of the quality. I like their stuff.

RAZ: Yeah.

BLOOM: But I won't deny that there's sort of a warm glow associated with that brand for me.

RAZ: Like, you can be sitting in the coffee shop with your Apple laptop. And somebody across the coffee shop may not talk to you, but they know that you're a pretty smart guy and you make good decisions 'cause you've got a Mac airbook.

BLOOM: I'm a creative sort. I'm not some worker drone with a Dell.

RAZ: No.

BLOOM: No way. Not me.

RAZ: Could you argue that, like, the way we experience things that we perceive to be valuable - is that, like, linked to something that is primal that goes way back?

BLOOM: I think it is. I think it's linked to basically how our minds have evolved to deal with people. So when you deal with a person, your feelings towards them, how you respond to them is going to be exquisitely calibrated to what you know about them. And I think intimate human relationships would be impossible if pleasure didn't have this deep nature to it. I mean, consider that we find the faces of people we love to be more attractive.

RAZ: Yeah.

BLOOM: That seems to make evolutionary sense, and it makes everyday sense. It makes sense because finding something attractive isn't meant to be a cold-blooded analysis of the world, rather it tells you who to approach, whose company you want to be with. And so it makes perfect sense that if you believe somebody to be kind, they look better to you.

I don't find it crazy that we work that way. And I also don't find it crazy that imagination plays such a role in our pleasures. But the fact is we live in a market economy. We live in a world where people are struggling against one another to get their products across and get themselves across. So what we'll do is we'll naturally exploit this. The fact that we're influenced by brands may be irrational, but it comes from a rational source, which is that for the most part, paying attention to these things matters.

RAZ: Paul Bloom teaches at Yale. His book on what we like and why is called "How Pleasure Works." You can check out his full talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.