Special Session Summary Accounting For Pleasure: on the Unitary and Multi-Dimensional Nature of Hedonic Experiences

Laurette DubT, McGill University
Jordan L. LeBel, McGill University
[ to cite ]:
Laurette DubT and Jordan L. LeBel (1999) ,"Special Session Summary Accounting For Pleasure: on the Unitary and Multi-Dimensional Nature of Hedonic Experiences", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 160-161.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 160-161



Laurette DubT, McGill University

Jordan L. LeBel, McGill University

Pleasure is at the core of consumption, be it as the primary motive of purchase for hedonic goods or services or, more generally, as the signal that any transaction has been satisfying. Yet, in spite of its centrality, there is a dearth of research focusing on the essence and experience of pleasure.

So far, research has considered pleasure as a remote psychological phenomenon. In social psychology, it has been empirically recognized as a unitary dimension underlying affective experience. In environmental psychology, physical and social parameters of the environment have been shown to modulate this basic dimension of pleasure. And in behavioral decision theory, the function of pleasure has been that of an axiom, an undifferentiated common currency, with consumers supposedly making decisions that maximize their pleasure or experience utility, given a certain investment.

If the above lines of research have been highly informative on the unitary nature of pleasure, they nonetheless fail to capture its richness and diversity and limit significantly research developments that are logically justified only if one admits that "all pleasures are not the same." If pleasures were of different kinds, it would suggest, for instance in the area of decision making, that we need to re-examine the way pleasures are anticipated, experienced, and recollected and how that bears on the decision process.

The objective of this session was to contrast these two views of pleasure and to provoke new ideas on consumer research on pleasure. Contenders of the first view C the unitary view C ee pleasure as a unitary dimension of affective experience, a common currency much like money and time, that consumers use to organize their experiences or to compare and chose among alternative goods and services. Defenders of the second view C the multi-dimensional view C claim that the unitary perspective regards all pleasures as fundamentally the same and therefore neglects all experiential and symbolic complexities that are equally part of the essence of pleasure. Instead, they propose that pleasures are of different kinds, correspond to fundamentally different psychological states which can be represented as prototypes around which pleasurable experiences are organized, reflecting graded structure and fuzzy boundaries.

In line with the 1998 ACR conference objective of encouraging inter-disciplinary and inter-paradigmatic exchanges, the session brought scholars from social science, neuropsychology, and consumer research. The presenters have considered pleasure from one of the two opposite perspectives, drawing on different paradigms and methodological approaches.

The first presenter was James Russell from the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. Russell is the social scientist whose work over the last decades has most consistently supported a unitary view of pleasure. Russell noted that, from pre-Socratic philosophy to the modern discipline of psychology with Wundt and Titchener, the unity of pleasure has simply been assumed. In support of the unitary view, Russell cited the variety of methods and applications that have revealed a single dimension of pleasure. For instance, Schlosberg’s and Osgood’s works demonstrated that facial expressions of emotions and words can be aligned along a single continuum of pleasure. As evidence of unity, Russell also noted how psychopathological states and mood-altering drugs taint evaluations across modalities. Moreover, Russell reviewed results from his own work on affective experiences along with results of other researchers, showing that affective experiences are organized according to a displeasure-pleasure continuum.

However, Russell argued that in spite of his conviction that pleasure has a unitary dimension, there is much that can be gained from moving beyond this view to acquire a finer-grained understanding of differences across pleasure experiences. These differences, he pointed out, could account for variations in the relationship between judgements and behaviors. To do so, he urged researchers to distinguish between the evaluation of pleasure from its sources, and the influence of needs and desires. He also pointed out that although a single continuum of pleasure captures a lot of variance it must be qualified by other dimensions, evidence of the complexity of the phenomenon.

The second presenters were Laurette DubT and Jordan LeBel from the Faculty of Management at McGill University. They argued that relying too heavily on a unitary view of pleasure, without questioning its underlying assumptions, has constrained conceptual and methodological development. They also noted how practitioners, too, could gain valuable insights from a differentiated perspective, especially those in the area of extended service encounters who must engineer complex hedonic experiences by performing a delicate and complex balancing act with different kinds of stimuli.

DubT and LeBel justified considering a multi-dimensional view of pleasure on the basis of recent evidence showing that pleasure’s effects on judgments and behaviors are not universal, but are instead tied to the affective quality of an experience. They pointed that even Bentham, author of the tenets of utility still espoused today by behavioral economists, recognized nine different kinds of pleasure. For one of them, pleasure of the senses, he listed no less than 14 different exemplars but still did not consider any potential variation in the intrinsic quality of pleasure in his Felicific Calculus. Even Mill, who pursuedBentham’s line of universal hedonism, objected to Bentham’s summation of pleasures on the basis that qualitatively different hedonic experiences are not commensurate; Mill argued that quality and not just intensity of pleasures should be considered in computing utility.

DubT and LeBel then reported the results of six studies, based on a categorization approach, designed to test which of a unitary, classical view, or a differentiated, prototype view is more appropriate for conceptualizing pleasure. If pleasures were of one kind, there should be a few sufficient and necessary features that clearly define membership of an object/experience as being of the "pleasure kind" (i.e., pleasure should be a classical category). Alternatively, if pleasures were of different kinds, different pleasure prototypes should emerge with both common and differentiated features. Together, the results formed a pattern in favor of a more differentiated perspective, consistent with prototype theory. Although subjects could easily generate instances of pleasure, they could not easily agree on sub-categories of pleasures (study 1) nor could they assign category memberships on a clear-cut fashion (study 5) as would require a classical, unitary view of pleasure. Set of features that would have been individually necessary and jointly sufficient to categorize instances as being pleasurable could not be specified (study 2). Instead, types of pleasure (study 3), feelings and emotions associated with pleasure (study 3) and pleasure antecedents (study 4) all revealed an internal graded structure. Most directly related to a differentiated view of pleasure, results of Study 6 show that different types of pleasures are associated with the experience of different feelings and emotions. This was particularly the case for intellectual pleasure, which presented the most important and most consistent pattern of differences compared to emotional, social and sensorial pleasures.

The third presenter was Peter Shizgal, from the Department of Psychology and Director of the Center for the Studies of Behavioral Neuroscience at Concordia University. His work focuses on the computation of utility and brain reward mechanisms. Shizgal provided a summary of findings from animal and human studies that have implicated common brain areas in the processing of natural and artificial stimuli. Some of these findings come from experiments conducted in his lab and that focuses on the effects of electrical brain stimulation. These experiments, together with data from studies with drug addicts as well as Shizgal’s own preliminary data from a human study looking at expectations of monetary gains and losses suggest that rewards of different kinds involve overlapping patterns of neural activation. However, Shizgal’s results also suggest that for man, not only sensorial inputs but also higher-order information such as cognitions, emotions, etc., are essential data in the mental accounting of pleasure. In earlier animal studies, results supported the notion that processing must be multi-dimensional in early stages when physiological feedback exerts its specific influence on goal selection.

Shizgal proposed a three-channel model that recognizes the common (unitary) nature of stimuli while allowing for differentiation at early stages of processing. Perceptual channels handle perceptual attributes and provide objective information. For choice to be adaptive, the distinct qualities of stimuli are preserved in an intermediary channel that enables the animal to account for various dimensions such as type, amount, and even timing. Finally, an action-oriented evaluative channel compresses multiple attributes of a stimulus into a single unidimensional signal. Shizgal used the example of a squirrel that, while choosing between possible food sources, may have one mental counter that tallies the fat content of a nut and its contribution to resource repletion and another counter that keeps track of the nut’s protein content for muscle mass maintenance. A summary of these two counters then enables the squirrel to make a final choice.

Beyond its theoretical contributions to th understanding of and research on pleasure, the session stimulated interesting questions and exchanges. In a reply period, each presenter was able to respond to the others’ presentation. Russell again emphasized that we should go beyond the unitary view and not simply discard it. Along that line of thought he asked why should there be unity. He argued that cognitive economy seems to underlie many unitary-type of decisions. DubT then explored the idea that different types of pleasures may be anticipated, experienced, and remembered in different ways which would lead us to reconsider many of the choice models we have been using to investigate, for instance, how customers combine attributes to form retrospective evaluations. In his reply, Shizgal emphasized the importance of the differentiated view for behavioral neurobiology where still no model exists to solve substitution problems in an adaptive fashion.

The question period from audience members was equally stimulating. There was a keen interest on whether different brain regions and chemicals were implicated in different emotional and hedonic experiences. On that point, Kosslyn’s evidence of different neurological signatures for the broad classes of positive and negative emotions raised a lot of interest. Then Shizgal expressed concern that if we put the question to subjects in a manner that forces a simple approach or avoidance decision with only one degree of freedom, we are bound to obtain a unitary type of response. Yet, when subjects are allowed to articulate their choice, they are able to access early input channels. This raises the question of when and how qualitatively differentiated input gets combined into a unitary-type of response.

Finally, the question of how negative emotions can lead to pleasure fuelled a stimulating discussion. DubT and LeBel’s results show that negative emotions like sadness, anxiety, and fear can lead to positive experiences. DubT argued that this is why accommodating a prototype view within the circumplex of affect is so challenging but also potentially instructive. Shizgal related one study where on-line ratings by mountain climbers were very low in terms of their immediate pleasure but were replaced by feelings of ecstasy and accomplishment once they reached the top of the mountain. Pursuing this line of thought, Russell suggested that we might have overemphasized the link between affect and behavior and overused the hedonic principle. As he put it, at every second of our lives, we may not necessarily seek to maximize pleasure. Obviously, many of the dynamics and processes of hedonic consumption still await further investigation.