Why We Enjoy Chili Peppers, S&M, Gruesome Movies, and Other Unpleasant Experiences

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This summer, millions of people will crowd into theaters to watch the latest Eli Roth film. They’ll visit Coney Island to ride the new Thunderbolt. They’ll challenge their friends to chili-dog-eating contests and guffaw at jokes about the digestive results. Why do we enjoy aversive experiences, from horror flicks to roller coasters to spicy foods to gross-out humor? Scientists are discovering that such enjoyment comes not from the raw experience itself, but from our reflections on our pain.

Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania has done the most to elucidate what he calls “benign masochism.” Three decades ago he wrote about people’s enjoyment of chili peppers. (He found that for many, the preferred level of hotness is just below what’s unbearable.) “I presented the idea in the 1980s, but nobody noticed,” he said — with a few exceptions such as Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works. So he decided to reintroduce it in a more systematic way. In a paper published last year in Judgment & Decision Making, he and his collaborators provided the most thorough survey of unpleasant experiences to date.

The researchers asked about 400 college undergrads and internet users to rate 30 items some might consider unpleasant on how much they enjoyed each one. They found that the items could be categorized into eight distinct groups based on shared appeal: sad works of art; spicy foods; gross-outs such as disgusting jokes, popping pimples, and medical exhibits; thrill rides and scary movies; pain from things like strong massages, hot tubs, and cold showers; the taste of alcohol; physical exertion and exhaustion; and the taste of bitter food and drink.

The most popular single item was physical exertion, which garnered an average score of 60.4 out of 100. The next most popular were thrill rides (56.5), the physical exhaustion you feel after exertion (55.2), spicy food (55), and sad music (47.6). There wasn’t much of a difference between men’s and women’s preferences, except that women tended to like sad items more, and men liked the taste of alcohol more.

One thing appears to unite all the items: They are unpleasant but harmless (in moderation). The concept of benign masochism springs from an important realization: Despite feeling discomfort, one is actually safe during these activities. Because of the role metacognition plays in this — “it’s a mind over body idea,” Rozin says — the researchers also think the phenomenon is uniquely human. Dogs in Mexico don’t form a preference for spicy foods. “I’ve tried to get chimps and rats to like hot pepper,” Rozin said. “I got a little bit of success with chimps … but not much.” He also said he has no knowledge of “an animal, like, standing on a railroad track just before the train comes by, or voluntarily going up a cliff, or anything like that.” Cattle are not sensation-seekers. (Some animals, however, do play-fight, which I’d argue is in the realm of benign masochism. They even emit panting similar to laughter.)

Related to the work on benign masochism, Peter McGraw, a psychologist at the University of Colorado and co-author of the new book The Humor Code, has been developing his “benign violation” theory of humor. A joke must find the right balance between threat and harmlessness in order to be funny, he argues. In his most recent paper, he reported that three Hurricane Sandy jokes the researchers tracked through Twitter became gradually funnier and then less funny after the event, as they swept through that sweet spot of tragicomedy in between “too soon” and “old news,” peaking in hilarity a month after the storm:

The common thread in our enjoyment of hot peppers, dark humor, and all the rest is a salient understanding that no real danger is afoot. A few years ago, a study by Eduardo Andrade and Joel Cohen explored the importance of a “protective frame” reminding us that an experience is safe. Two groups of subjects, those who love horror movies and those who avoid them, watched a scene from Salem’s Lot while continuously rating how happy they were and how scared they were. In one experiment, everyone simply watched the film. Both groups equally reported being scared, but the horror fans were simultaneously happy, while the non-fans were made unhappy by the mayhem. Then, in another test, horror lovers and haters first read short biographies of the actors, and while watching the scene they saw photos of the actors next to the film. The tweaks offered a protective frame reminding viewers: It’s just a movie! This time, both groups found joy in being scared.

No discussion of this subject would be complete without a mention of sadomasochism. A meta-analysis by Joseph Critella and Jenny Bivona of 20 studies found that between 31 and 57 percent of women have erotic rape fantasies. What psychologically separates these scenarios from actual rape is that they’re fantasies, and women know they’re fantasies. It’s hard to enjoy domination if you don’t ultimately trust your partner. Having a “safe word,” besides adding real protection, can enable pleasure even when it goes unused.

Other researchers have studied various aspects of the metacognitive process that extracts joy from misery. Most notably, the economist George Loewenstein wrote that mountaineers enjoy their dangerous adventures in part because of a sense of mastery. The realization that you can weather pain and fear and still conquer your environment brings a sense of control and self-confidence.

Recently, Werner Wirth and colleagues showed that when watching Hotel Rwanda, sadness was associated with not just a sense of mastery over negative feelings but also a sense of personal growth and the feeling that important life values had been illuminated. In the lingo, sadness reduced hedonic value and raised eudaimonic value, trading happiness for meaningfulness. Relatedly, Mary Beth Oliver and Arthur Raney found that preferences for nonfiction, drama, and sci-fi movies are negatively correlated with the desire to have fun while watching a movie, but are positively correlated with a desire for meaning — reflection and a challenged worldview.

And sometimes, unpleasantness appeals simply for its novelty. Anat Keinan and Ran Kivetz have looked at “collectable experiences”: many people choose unusual activities (e.g., staying in an ice hotel) over pleasurable ones (staying at a Marriott in Florida) as a way to build their “experiential CV,” thus feeling productive. In other words, it seems we want to map and master the full range of potential human experience.