Unpleasant Experiences Considered Pretty Fun

There’s a tradition of identifying aberrant behavior, posing a mystery around its existence, and using that as a jumping off point for speculative theories on human nature. From Scott’s review of Sadly, Porn:

Why do people have fetishes which seem contrary to common sense (submission, humiliation, cuckoldry, etc)?.. Teach writes: “Porn doesn’t depict fetishes - porn is your fetish.” This seems totally insane and also I can’t rule it out.

This makes for engaging writing, and it’s a good trick to generate suspense, but it only works if you assume that the behavior in question requires an explanation. That is, if you assume that behavior “contrary to common sense” is at all uncommon.

I don’t think this is true. Across domains and cultural contexts, people have all sorts of weird preferences, and engaging in at least a few of these seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Consider:

  • Spicy food made with capsaicin, which literally evolved in plants to prevent animals from eating them.
  • Scary movies
  • Liquor which burns your throat.
  • Exercise in general, including weightlifting which literally tears your muscles, hobbies like rock climbing which routinely involve torn skin, all combat sports.
  • Very bitter beers
  • Sad music, movies, books
  • Strongly fermented foods like natto (fermented soybeans often described as having a “booger-like texture”), blue cheese, garum (made by letting fish intestines rot in the sun), and so on
  • Etc.

And ask yourself, does the existence of submission as a fetish really require a particular explanation? Is it so mysterious that I should be willing to accept a highly speculative hypothesis over the default stance that people often enjoy things which don’t seem (to me) intuitively pleasant?

Some of you read the above list and though “you nerd, liquor is good, you just have to learn to appreciate it”. But that’s precisely the point! I do like many of these things, and I expect you do too.

The popular explanations fall into veins like:

  • “People just pretend to enjoy those things in order to seem manly/interesting/cultured.”
  • “People just pretend to have weird fetishes to have sex with other people who either genuinely have those fetishes, or are just playing the same game.”
  • “People engage in unpleasant things as a means to an end. No one likes running, they like endorphins.”

And sure! That might be true. My point isn’t that people are self-defeating and hate pleasure (though this also sometimes seems true), or that the existence of these preferences doesn’t provide an insight into human nature. It’s that “enjoying seemingly unpleasant things” seems to me nearly universal, such that any particular instance of it doesn’t merit much psychoanalysis.