In 1986, CEO of Perrier North America Bruce Nevins found himself in a difficult spot. On KABC radio in Los Angeles the host challenged him to a blind taste test. The rules were simple: correctly identify a Perrier from seven drinks – six club sodas and one Perrier. Long story short, Nevins failed miserably; it took him not one or two, but five tries before he picked out the Perrier.
I stole this example from Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works to reinforce a point I made a few posts ago: how you taste something strongly depends on what you believe you are tasting (this is the example I used: people enjoy wine more when it comes from a $90 bottle than a $10 bottle even when the wine is the same).
I want to extend this idea beyond wine.
Consider a study done by Bloom and his Yale colleagues Gil Diesendruck and George Newman. Participants were divided up into three groups and asked how much they would pay for an object (e.g., a sweater) that was owned by a living celebrity they admired (George Clooney or Barack Obama, for example). Here was the catch: one group was informed that it had been thoroughly sterilized; another group was informed that they weren’t allowed to resell it or tell anyone that they owned it; the final group was told that the celebrity received it as a gift but never wore it. Bloom, Diesendruck and Newman found that in all three cases people were willing to pay less than their original value. Like the Perrier and wine examples, the history of the object mattered.
Why do we care so much about origins? To borrow some examples from Bloom; why was a tape measure owned by John F. Kennedy sold for $48,875? Why did Todd McFarlane pay $3 million dollars for Mark McGwire’s seventieth home run? Why do people save their first pair of shoes or favorite teddy bear?
Bloom’s idea is that we are all essentialists. That is, we pay special attention to the history of an object – where it has been, what it has touched, and who has touched it. As Bloom explains, we subscribe to “the notion that things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.” And, moreover, “the pleasure we get from many things and activities is based in part on what we see as their essences.”
Here’s the question that keeps me up at night: why are we essentialists?
I was fortunate enough to sit down with Professor Bloom last month and ask him this question. Below is an abridged transcript from our conversation.
McNerney: Is there an evolutionary advantage of being an essentialist?
Bloom: I think the case is most obviously made about other people. If I want to safely interact with you, I must be cautious of your history. For example, it is advantageous for me to know how you’ve treated me in the past, who your friends are, who you know and what you know. There is a long list of things that are invisible but are part of you, and they could be important for, say, my survival.
McNerney: So you could say that when we assess others we look at them physically, but we also examine their “resumes,” if you will.
Bloom: Exactly, that’s right. And the same is true with animals. You want to know more than just the physical – the history is important too. For example, is it dangerous? Does it tend to move quickly? Likewise for food, you want to know its history and what it has touched before you eat it.
McNerney: So evolution did not favor people who weren’t able to think as essentialists?
Bloom: Yes, think about what a disadvantage it would be if you only assess things as they are. Here’s the interesting part, you could argue that humans have taken it too far. We are so caught up in history that we collect irrelevant things. We care about the difference between an original and a forgery.
This part of our conversation made a lot of sense to me. Bringing in the evolutionary explanation is always helpful and interesting. Specially, I like the idea that our “essentialistic” tendencies have spilled over into other domains; this helps explain why the history of a product (food, wine, or whatever) influences us.
Finally, though I didn’t say it, I couldn’t help but think that essentialism greatly (and I can’t emphasize this enough) influenced philosophy, especially Platonic and Cartesian philosophy. It seems like the theory of the Forms and Cartesian skepticism arose from a general belief that there is something more than just the object/person.
- I thank professor Bloom for his time. Find his book, How Pleasure Works on Amazon. Also, check out his lectures on pleasure.
- I found four articles online that tell the Nevins story. Three of them said club soda and one said tap water. I went with club soda in the opening paragraph.