I heard a phrase today on CBS Sunday Morning in a story about how pleasure works. In the context of discussing why is an artistic masterpiece is worth millions more than a convincing forgery and why we like a wine better if it has a bigger price tag they mentioned benign masochism.

Why do we get pleasure from the horror movie or from the scares on a roller coaster. Why do we endure the pain of hot chiles and the stink of some cheeses? Babies know not to like such things, but we learn to like such things. We become inured to the negatives. Think of all the things that are an “acquired taste.”

For a long time we humans have been described as pleasure-pain machines. We pursue pleasure and avoid pain. See Freud’s “pleasure principle.” But then how do you explain the thrill seeking skydiver, the bitter, sour, salty tastes, and the too hot steam room or jacuzzi?

Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, seems to be credited with the theory of benign masochism that explains this glitches in the pleasure principle.

We respond positively to a dangerous situation when our mind can also determine we are safe. We get a kick from feeling control in the midst of uncertainty. The other name for this is “constrained risk.”

It’s mind-over-body and that mastery gives us the pleasure. Rozin has done studies with those hot chiles and found that people liked the chili peppers that were just one level below intolerable best. They got pleasure from pushing to the limit of real pain. He also found that that it is not uncommon for people to like the body’s defensive responses, such as the nose and eye tearing that result from eating hot peppers.

This theory taken further also might explain why the first time is often the best. New, novel, first experiences have that mix of danger and uncertainty that make it not always dangerous but holding the chance of something other than pleasure. It explains that first kiss with someone, the first time you try something or go someplace that you’re not quite sure about.

You don’t want to cross the line into clinical masochism. Or do you? That cross over into masochism (or sadism or sadomasochism) is most often referring to a sexual perversion where pleasure comes from being subjected to pain or humiliation, especially by someone who is the object of love. But more broadly, masochism is a taste for suffering to ourselves.

Maybe that explains why a safe reading of Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed seemed to give so many people a safe thrill.

There’s no masochism in another story on Sunday Morning about how tree houses are becoming more popular among adults, unless it’s the idea that it might fall.

So, if you want to walk close to the edge, try new things. Try things that you are afraid to try but that others seem to enjoy. Savor that first time.  Embrace the new.

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