A Differentiated View of Pleasure: Review of the Literature and Research Propositions

ABSTRACT - Within the choice and decision making literatures pleasure is conceptualized as an undifferentiated common, fungible currency that consumers strive to maximize. We review the literature on pleasure and focus on an alternative view of pleasure as a multi-dimensional, differentiated phenomenon. We propose a formal model based on categorization theory and developed to reconcile these two views. We elaborate a set of testable propositions regarding the implications of our model for consumer experience, choice and decision making research. We propose that (1) different kinds of pleasures may be anticipated, experienced, and remembered in different ways. Thus, different pleasures will exhibit different patterns of change over the course of an experience and different discounting rates in memory-based judgments. We further propose that (2) the simultaneous experience of pleasures of different kinds may alter their respective intensities; and that (3) pleasure of different kinds may differentially contribute to consumers’ approach behaviors.


Laurette Dube and Jordan L. Le Bel (2001) ,"A Differentiated View of Pleasure: Review of the Literature and Research Propositions", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Andrea Groeppel-Klien and Frank-Rudolf Esch, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 222-226.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2001      Pages 222-226


Laurette Dube, McGill University, Canada

Jordan L. Le Bel, Concordia University, Canada


Within the choice and decision making literatures pleasure is conceptualized as an undifferentiated common, fungible currency that consumers strive to maximize. We review the literature on pleasure and focus on an alternative view of pleasure as a multi-dimensional, differentiated phenomenon. We propose a formal model based on categorization theory and developed to reconcile these two views. We elaborate a set of testable propositions regarding the implications of our model for consumer experience, choice and decision making research. We propose that (1) different kinds of pleasures may be anticipated, experienced, and remembered in different ways. Thus, different pleasures will exhibit different patterns of change over the course of an experience and different discounting rates in memory-based judgments. We further propose that (2) the simultaneous experience of pleasures of different kinds may alter their respective intensities; and that (3) pleasure of different kinds may differentially contribute to consumers’ approach behaviors.

There has been significant development lately in the consumer literature on the study of hedonic consumption and on the role that pleasure (or experience utility) plays in choice, decision making, and behavior. The implicit assumption throughout this literature is that all pleasurable experiences can be reduced to a single, unique dimension. Under this "unitary" view, pleasure is independent of the qualities of the stimuli that produced it. Further, pleasure is also seen as independent of one’s subjective experience including, but not limited to, emotions, beliefs, desires or intuitions about pleasure. Even though pleasure may be subject to many influences, from simple sensations to complex cognitive inferences, even influences outside of awareness (c.f., Ledoux, 1996), the unitary view does not account for the possibility that these various influences in effect create distinctively different pleasures. If this unitary view has been helpful in understanding evolutionary and motivational correlates of pleasure, relying too heavily on this conceptualization may have constrained research and theory development. As Higgins (1997) argued, when a principle such as the hedonic principle is intuitively appealing, simple and of general applicability, it tends to be overused with little questioning of its hidden assumptions.

Alternatively, it may be that people approach and experience different types of pleasures in substantially different ways such that different types of pleasures correspond to different psychological realities. If this assumption were true, further scientific investigation of the concept of pleasure would be profitable. Such investigation may reveal, for example, different ways in which pleasure is experienced, anticipated or remembered depending on what type it is, why it occurs or where it comes from. Such insights would be inaccessible under the unitary perspective outlined above.

In spite of their high relevance for the understanding of human behavior in general, and in consumption contexts in particular, there is a dearth of research focusing on the essence and experience of different types of pleasures. In this paper, we review the literature on the unitary and differentiated notions of pleasure. We then propose a model developed to reconcile these two views based on prototype theory. Finally, we outline a set of testable propositions pertaining to the implications of the proposed model for consumer research.


The unitary and unidimensional essence of pleasure

From ancient Greek philosophy to modern neuropsychology, the hedonic principle of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain has pervaded scholarly attempts to understand behavior, animal or human. In fact, pleasure has for long been considered the primary motivator of human behavior. In physiology, Cabanac (1971) demonstrated that pleasure corresponds to a pleasant sensation that arises when hunger, bodily comfort, or other visceral drives are satisfied, thereby reestablishing homeostasis. Cabanac also showed that pleasure depends on internal, physiological signals and behaves as a common currency that people trade like money or time as they choose among alternative, sometimes conflicting courses of action (see Cabanac, 1992, for a review).

Research on human emotions also subscribes to the unitary conceptualization of pleasure. In that area, pleasure is seen as being of a single kind and varying on a single continuum from displeasure to pleasure (Larsen and Diener, 1985; Watson and Tellegen, 1985; Russell, 1980). According to these frameworks, the diversity of affective experiences can be organized around a circumplex that combines pleasure and arousal. The location of an emotion along the dimensions of pleasure and arousal defines the affective state associated with that emotion (Feldman, 1997). There is a reasonable degree of agreement on this general structure of affective experiences.

Research on pleasure as a measure and expression of utility also adheres to the unitary conceptalization of pleasure (Cabanac, 1971; Kahneman, Fredrickson, Schreiber, and Redelmeier, 1993; Kahneman, Wakker, and Sarin, 1997). Inspired partly by Bentham’s theorizing, the function of pleasure has been that of an axiom, a remote psychological substrate that acts like a common currency that people trade and attempt to maximize given a certain investment (Kahneman, Wakker, and Sarin, 1997; Cabanac, 1971; Elster and Loewenstein, 1992). Pleasure informs the individual that a beneficial stimulus is present and provides a signal to approach or avoid the target object or to continue or stop its consumption. This pleasure currency is used in decisions that involve conflicting options, providing a stop-or-go signal as the ratio "pleasure/cost" evolves over time. Not surprisingly, abundant research has focused on the relationship between this currency and behavior (Cabanac, 1971) and recently, on the relation between the instant-by-instant measure of this currency and overall utility derived from an experience (Kahneman et al., 1993).

The conceptualization of pleasure common across these different areas can even be found in the first of many definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines pleasure as "the condition of consciousness or sensation induced by the enjoyment or anticipation of what is felt or viewed as good or desirable." (in Rozin, 1999). In fact, this view of pleasure underlies much of modern scientific thinking on related issues, as captured by the following citation from Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason (in Duncker, 1941, p. 392-393):

"Just as to the man who wants money to spend, it is all the same whether the gold was dug out of the mountain or washed out of the sand, provided it is everywhere accepted at the same value, so the man who cares only for the enjoyment of life does not ask whether the ideas (which he enjoys) are of the understanding or of the senses, but only how much and how great pleasure they will give for the longest time." (part 1, chap.3, note 1)

Recent contributions notwithstanding, the literature on pleasure suffers from an important gap. Researchers have yet to determine how pleasures resulting from qualitatively different antecedents and producing widely different affective experiences are distilled into a common currency and expressed as a single degree of goodness/badness. It is generally accepted that the subjective experience of pleasure is diverse and complex. Even Bentham (1781/1988), whose ideas have fueled modern utility theory, recognized the diversity of hedonic experiences when he outlined no less than 14 different kinds of pleasures such as pleasures of sense, wealth, skill, and memory. As a further sign of the nuances existing among pleasures, he listed nine subtypes under "pleasures of sense." Unfortunately, neither Bentham nor contemporary researchers have integrated any of this richness in theoretical formulae for computing the intensity or common currency derived from a hedonic experience.

The claim for differentiated pleasures

Higgins (1997) highlighted the need for a better understanding of the various facets of the psychological experience of pleasure and their relationship to approach-avoidance motivations. A similar claim was made some time ago by Duncker (1941) who argued against the idea of reducing pleasure to a common currency. Using Kant’s analogy of pleasure and gold, Duncker pointed out that "a product like gold emancipates itself from, and exists independently of, its source. Is the pleasure separable from the flavor in the same sense? Clearly not. The experience of pleasure remains dependent upon the experience of the flavor (or whatever other source it may have.)" (p. 399).

There is no shortage of expressions to describe the various ways in which pleasures may differ, from the discourse of Greek philosophers (see Bailey, 1928; Gaskin, 1995; Le Bel and DubT, 1997) to a diversity of qualities assigned to pleasure by artists of all times (see Dissanayake, 1996, for a review). Plato, for example, distinguished the pleasures of the body from those of the soul. In the platonic tradition, sensations were deemed fallible and bodily sensations only led to false pleasures. In this disembodied and contemplative perspective, true pleasure C that of the soul C was seen as an end in itself with little or no regards for the process: "the wise man’s pleasure consists in his wisdom" (Hampton, 1990, p. 14). Aristotle’s views maintained the body-soul dualism but shifted away from the object-bound definition of pleasure toward an interactionist viewpoint. Pleasure was no longer determined solely by the nature of its object (or act being performed). Epicure furthered this idea and distinguished simple pleasures, the domain of the senses, from higher ones, the domain of the intellect. However, the relationship between the two types of pleasures was no longer one of dualism: simple pleasures borne of sensations could achieve higher status via the operation of reason and consciousness. For the Epicureans, such pleasure was no longer a by-product of wisdom or of successful striving: it was the object of striving per se.

Other typologies of pleasure, constructed mostly from theoretical arguments, have been proposed recently. For instance, Duncker (1941) side-stepped the body-soul dichotomy and proposed three types of pleasure: sensory pleasures, for which the immediate object of pleasure is the nature of a sensation (e.g., the flavor of the wine, the feel of silk, etc.); aesthetic pleasures, are derived from sensations being expressive of something, offered by nature, or created by man (e.g., sunsets, music, etc.); accomplishment pleasures represent the emotional, pleasant consciousness that something valued has come about (e.g., mastery of a skill, athletic performance, etc). It is noteworthy that the latter type of pleasure is conceptually close to Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) concept of "flow."

Kubovy (1999) recently provided a typology that builds on Duncker’s work but returns to the body-mind distinction. Kubovy differentiated "pleasures of the body" as either triggered by sensory contact that creates positive hedonic states (i.e., tonic pleasures) or as borne from the relief of tension or discomfort (i.e., relief pleasures). As for the pleasures of the mind, Kubovy defined them as collections of emotions distributed over time, regardless of whether they are aesthetics or accomplishment pleasures. He suggested that emotions triggering pleasures of the mind result from violation of expectations activated by sensory stimuli such as music or humor, from curiosity (learning something new), or from virtuosity (feeling you are doing something well). For completeness, he also acknowledged the pleasure of nurture and the pleasure of belonging to a social group as additional varieties of pleasures of the mind.

Kubovy’s typology parallels the sociological account of pleasure offered by Tiger (1992) who identified four types of pleasures. Physio-pleasures involve sensations or the physical impressions obtained from eating, drinking, or lying in the sun, to use some of his examples. Socio-pleasures are borne out of experiencing the pleasure of the company of others. Psycho-pleasures stem from the satisfaction from acts initiated and enjoyed by individuals, while ideo-pleasures are borne of ideas, images, and emotions privately experienced. This typology, like previous ones, has never been empirically tested and, as Tiger pointed out, the categories are loose, blend into one another, and are not mutually exclusive.

If most of the typologies outlined thus far are intuitively appealing, they fall short of providing a window onto the relationship between different types of pleasure and approach-avoidance behaviors. First, even recent conceptualizations (e.g., Kubovy, 1999) remain at a rather general level, without providing a systematic representation of the various features of experiences that make up different pleasure categories. Second, to the best of our knowledge, beyond phenomenological and introspective exploration (e.g., Duncker, 1941), no empirical validation has been presented in support of any of these proposed typologies. In fact, empirical research on pleasure has focused primarily on sensory pleasures, particularly their immediate physiological antecedents and consequences (e.g., Cabanac, 1971), as well as the biological, psychological, and social influences producing shifts in sensory pleasure (e.g., Rozin, 1990).


In this section, we outline a model of differentiated pleasures based on categorization theory (Rosch, 1975; Rosch and Mervis, 1975). We propose that unitary pleasure corresponds to the superordinate level of a hierarchical category, and differentiates itself into four basic pleasure prototypes. Expanding upon Kubovy’s (1999) suggestion that pleasures of the mind can be described as a collection of emotions, we propose that each basic-level prototype entails a set of common and distinctive emotional qualities that define its affective make-up. The proposed model, illustrated in Figure 1, includes the following four basic-level pleasures derived from existing typologies: (1) sensorial, (2) emotional, (3) social, and (4) intellectual. In our model intellectual and emotional pleasures are reminiscent of Duncker’s (1941) aesthetic and accomplishment pleasures, later subsumed by Kubovy (1999) under pleasures of the mind. Sensory and social pleasures as discussed by Tiger (1992) are also represented in our model.



How do the four pleasure prototypes compare to each other? It is likely that some affective qualities or reactions are common to all pleasure prototypes. For instance, it is entirely reasonable to expect that clearly positive feelings such as excitement and joy would be common across all four prototypes. Secondly, across the four basic-level prototypes, it may well be that, as Rozin (1999) suggested, sensory pleasure is the most representative prototype of the whole general category of pleasure. However, by opposition to earlier work, we do not assume that sensory pleasures are emotion-free. The affective constitution of sensory pleasures is likely to include accomplishment, excitement, and happiness as typical qualities. Even ngative affective responses may be part of the typical script of sensory pleasures. Guilt, anxiety, laziness, nervousness, sadness even vulnerability are likely to be more frequently associated with sensory pleasure than with the general concept of pleasure.

How do the four basic-level prototype compare to unitary pleasure, at the superordinate level? We propose that certain affective features will be more typical of each of the four pleasure prototypes than of the superordinate concept of pleasure. For example, social pleasures are likely to be dominated by the experience of more relational qualities such as feelings of altruism, empathy, caring, love, and warmth than the general category. Emotional pleasures, on the other hand, are more likely to include feelings of bliss, contentment, and ecstasy. Intellectual pleasures are likely to present a unique profile of affective qualities and include affective experiences such as a feeling of accomplishment, fulfillment, pride, confidence and esteem, and perhaps even negative affective experiences such as procrastination, anxiety and worry. Finally, sensorial pleasures may include experiences such as laziness and guilt.


Our proposed model is accompanied by the assumption that the affective script or qualities associated with each prototype can have an important impact on consumers’ choice and decision making, and on behavioral manifestations as well. In this section, we explore three propositions that stem from our model.

Proposition 1: The unfolding of pleasure

Differentiated pleasures may vary in the relative contribution that anticipation and memories make to the intensity of the overall experience. For example, it is reasonable to hypothesize that anticipation may be a more important generator of pleasure intensity than memories for sensory pleasures given the forward-looking nature of such pleasures and the possibility that guilt differentiates them from the superordinate level. For intellectual pleasures, one could argue the opposite. Given their demanding nature suggested from emotions reflecting goal attainment (i.e., accomplishment, fulfillment, pride) and emotions experienced in anticipation like anxiety, nervousness and sadness, memories are likely to surpass anticipation as sources of intellectual pleasure intensity.

The differentiated affective constitution of the four pleasure prototypes may also bear on intertemporal choice. Research in this area has revealed a strong tendency to postpone pleasant outcomes, a phenomenon referred to as negative temporal discounting (Loewenstein and Prelec, 1993). Under a differentiated view, the anticipation of different pleasures may be reflected in different rates of temporal discounting. We may be willing to postpone a dinner in a fancy French restaurant and prefer to take on the challenging revision of a paper because the affective make-up of the former is more clearly positive than that of the latter, even though on the same intensity scale, both may deliver equal amounts of pleasure.

Proposition 2: Combinations of pleasures

The differentiated pattern of emotions observed between pleasure prototypes may not only influence temporal structure, and intertemporal choice. It may also change the relationship between the on-line, momentary experience of pleasure, and its retrospective global judgment. So far, current models of retrospective judgments have been developed with largely unidimensional, and most often aversive stimuli like colonoscopy procedure (Redelmeier and Kahneman, 1996) or video clips of amputation (Fredrickson and Kahneman, 1993). Such models hold that specific moments (e.g., peak and end) within a single episode are averaged into an overall evaluation (e.g., Kahneman et al., 1993; Redelmeier and Kahneman, 1996). However, given the complex affective content of the four basic pleasure prototypes, it is highly unlikely that retrospective judgments of all types of hedonic experiences can be reduced to a simple matter of aggregating pleasure intensity over a few select moments within an episode.

What, then, may be an alternative account for the formation of retrospective judgments in the context of pleasurable experiences presenting differentiated emotional makeup? Thomas and Diener (1990) suggested that "people could reconceptualize their emotional experience when the episode comes to an end; therefore their recall is not of the on-line experience per se but of the way they currently conceptualize and chunk the experience. They may form a gestalt of the emotional experience when it is over, depending on their self concept and the outcome of the episode." (p. 296). This proposition is consistent with philosopher John Dewey’s theorizing: "An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that storm, that friendship. The existence of unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of variation in its constituent parts. () In going over an experience in mind after its occurrence, we may find that one property rather than another was sufficiently dominant so that it characterizes the experience as a whole. () Yet, the experience was not a sum of these different characters; they were lost in it as distinctive traits." (Dewey 1934/1980, p. 37, original italics). The unique emotional qualities of the pleasure prototypes may play a central role in defining which "single quality" is most likely to pervade the entire experience. At this stage, such a proposition awaits conceptual development and empirical examination.

The simultaneous delivery and consumption of pleasures of different kinds could also bear on the formation of retrospective global judgments and on the subjective experience itself. Different pleasures consumed simultaneously may alter each other’s intensity in such a way that retrospective judgments may no longer be a simple averaging matter but rather a function of the sequencing and balance among the different pleasures. Further, combinations of different pleasures may reduce the onset of habituation, boredom or otherwise satiety that takes place within a consumption episode and alter the experience itself. The resulting experience may be one where hedonic reactions and behavioral manifestations over time form a pattern unforeseen by traditional approach-avoidance models.

Proposition 3: Approach/avoidance consequences

Consistent with past research in categorization (Rosch and Mervis, 1975), we propose that basic-level pleasure prototypes convey more, and more specific information about category members than the unitary pleasure at the superordinate level, while being more parsimonious than subordinate level in discriminating between categories. This has significant impact in understanding the approach-avoidance manifestations of pleasure. Since basic level prototypes are the most accessible memory representation of a concept when a relevant stimulus is encountered (Rosch et al., 1976), they are also likely to be most influential in shaping subsequent behavior. This challenges the currently prevailing assumption that one can infer the behavioral impact of a given "pleasure" intensity, regardless of the affective qualities of the experience. Consider, for instance, the affective qualities that may be more typical of intellectual pleasures than of pleasure in general, such as anxiety, contentment, and nervousness. The pleasurable experience of a given intensity that entails such a complex portfolio of positive and negative emotions is likely to have decision making and behavioral correlates distinctively different from other types of pleasure of the same intensity. These unique behavioral and decision patterns are unlikely to be uncovered when researchers treat pleasure as a "general" superordinate concept. Overlooking such defining differences among pleasures may well lead to incomplete interpretations and conclusions with regards to the approach-avoidance properties of various types of hedonic experiences (Higgins, 1997).

We propose that pleasures of different kinds may differentially contribute to overall approach tendency. Consider, for instance, the implications of the four pleasure prototypes for the temporal frames of pleasure and their underlying psychological processes. As Elster and Loewenstein (1992) argued, the overall utility of an event is the summation of the utility derived from anticipating, experiencing and remembering that event. Even if a large share of the total pleasure is likely to be derived from the experience or consumption proper for all prototypes, there may still be considerable variations between different pleasures in terms of their moment-to-moment unfolding. Consider the experience of intellectual pleasure that includes a strong sense of accomplishments with feelings of anxiety and nervousness. This type of experience is likely to color in important ways processes such as how pleasure unfolds, including the amount of attention available to non-focal pleasure-eliciting activities.


Perhaps the most challenging implication of a differentiated view of pleasure is the question of when and how different hedonic attributes collapse into a single, unitary state, or currency. Such a process is most likely to occur at the neural level if decision making and behavior are to be adaptive. At the neural level, Ledoux (1996) suggested that each motional unit can be thought of as a set of inputs, an appraisal mechanism, and a set of outputs. The appraisal mechanism, akin to cognitive models of appraisal (e.g., Ellsworth and Smith, 1988) is programmed by evolution to detect certain inputs or trigger stimuli that are relevant to the function of the network. These networks evolve because they have the function of connecting trigger stimuli with responses that are likely to succeed in keeping the organism alive. Unidimensional dis/pleasure may be the common substrate that determines the relevance of a stimulus to the function of the neural network. However, the appraisal mechanism has the capacity to learn about stimuli that are associated with and predictive of the occurrence of natural triggers. Beyond general pleasantness, what multidimensional information on differentiated pleasures might be profitably preserved and processed?

On this issue, results from animal studies provide valuable insights. Shizgal and his colleagues (Shizgal, 1999; Shizgal and Conover, 1996) have studied pleasure (or more correctly the computation of utility) with rats. Based on experiments on the relationship between the rewarding effects of electrical brain stimulation and gustatory stimuli, they propose that brain stimulation reward arises from the electrical activation of neurons that convey a unidimensional representation of the utility of objects. It is the unidimensional character of this encoding that enables the electrical stimulation to produce a meaningful signal. However, they argue that survival and adaptive choices rely on multidimensional processing at earlier stages when physiological feedback exerts its specific influence on goal selection. For choice to be adaptive, the representation of the stimulus must retain qualitative information reflecting level of need, biological benefits, etc.

The question remains however, for animal as well as for human beings, as to what may be the contribution of unitary and differentiated components of pleasure that makes approach-avoidance responses most adaptive. Studies looking at expectations of monetary gains and losses (c.f. Shizgal, 1999) suggest that rewards of different kinds involve overlapping patterns of neural activation. 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 intermediate channel enabling the animal to account for type, amount, and even timing of reward. Finally, an action-oriented evaluative channel collapses multiple attributes of a stimulus into a single unidimensional signal. Moving from the intermediate to the action-evaluative channel is most probably when the specific information contained in the differentiated prototypes blend into a unitary signal of pleasure intensity. The answer to this and other unresolved aspects of hedonic information processing will have to await theoretical and empirical developments, especially in terms of new measures of subjective experience and brain imagery techniques.


The challenge emerging from this review and our proposed model is to proceed with conceptual and methodological developments that integrate current knowledge of the different dimensions of the subjective experience of pleasure into existing decision-making and approach-avoidance models. This step is critical in order to better understand when and how different pleasures become and behave as a common currency. While, as Ledoux (1996) suggested, nonverbal and unconscious systems underlying hedonic experiences may render some dynamics inaccessible to techniques most frequently used in consumer research such as introspection and self-reports, new developments in brain imaging may one day allow us to determine if and how different pleasures correspond to different realities at a neurological level. In the meantime, consumer researchers need to acquire a better understanding of the differences between pleasures and how these differences impact behavioral manifestations.


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Laurette Dube, McGill University, Canada
Jordan L. Le Bel, Concordia University, Canada


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2001

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