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From ‘romantasy’ to reality TV, why we love guilty pleasures so much

Some people get obsessed with romance and fantasy novels. What's the science behind this kind of guilty pleasure?
proxyminder/Getty Images
Some people get obsessed with romance and fantasy novels. What's the science behind this kind of guilty pleasure?

In the past few months, romance and fantasy books have taken the internet by storm. One of these is The Empyrean series by Rebecca Yarros. These books became a bit of an obsession for me. (What’s not to love about a college full of love triangles and magic dragons?)

I devoured these books and many of my coworkers and friends did, too. A single mention of the series quickly prompted both gushing reviews and groans from the people around me.

Despite the fun I had reading, I noticed that I felt the need to add a disclaimer before recommending the series: “I mean, it’s all kind of silly,” I’d say.

I got curious about this need to separate myself from this thing that was bringing me joy. Of course, I decided to turn to science. What could it tell me about this experience of a guilty pleasure?

Maybe yours is romantasy books like mine, or maybe it's video games, reality TV or obscure corners of TikTok.

I spoke with neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach at the University of Oxford and several other researchers to get answers.

This story is adapted from an episode of Short Wave.

Kringelbach, who directs a center dedicated to studying human flourishing, pleasure and meaningfulness in the brain, says experiencing pleasure is critical to humanity’s survival.

“We need to be able not just to survive for ourselves, but also survive as a species,” he says. “Which means that the fundamental pleasures are the ones where we can have some food that gives us the energy to go on, but also sex that allows us to basically work as a species.”

Here’s what I learned about why and how we experience pleasure and what makes the guilty kind sooo good.

Wanting and liking use different parts of our brains

Kent Berridge is a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan who has collaborated with Kringelbach in the past. He says for a long time he and other neuroscientists thought the thing we call “pleasure” referred to a singular system in the brain and was related to dopamine. But as they studied pleasure, they saw that it is just part of a cycle that includes wanting and liking, each involving different neural pathways.

Kringelbach used the example of his morning cup of coffee to explain the first part of this cycle: wanting. When he gets up and starts thinking about coffee, his brain might be fixated on the idea of how it will taste, smell or feel. He says these things drive “wanting,” and ultimately motivate him to go to his coffee machine and make himself a cup each morning.

Once we start drinking our morning coffee, we enter the “liking” stage of the cycle, when we experience pleasure, Berridge says.

And while many people think about dopamine when it comes to pleasure in general, Berridge says it primarily drives this first part of the cycle, the wanting.

Liking or pleasure seems to be related to a different system in the brain.

In rodent brains researchers see signs of pleasure or “liking” – such as licking the lips after eating – when they stimulate tiny sites nestled right inside of a web of reward structures in the brain. They’re like cubic-millimeter-sized buttons, smaller than a grain of rice – Berridge and Kringelbach referred to them as “hedonic hotspots.”

Though researchers don’t know whether these structures exist in humans, Berridge says recent work suggests we may at least have something similar.

The guilty part of pleasure may be an outlet

Of course, humans – and our motivations – are much more complex than rodents. And since there’s not a ton of neuroscience into guilty pleasures, I spoke to a behavioral researcher.

Kelly Goldsmith, a professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University, did a series of studies in 2012 testing people’s associations between guilt and pleasure. And she found experiencing guilt about something might make people enjoy that thing even more.

Goldsmith and her team got people to think about guilt without being consciously aware of it – by doing things like having them unscramble words related to the feeling. Then the participants tried different kinds of chocolate, and rated how much they’d be willing to pay for the chocolate and how much they liked it.

The people who’d been primed to think about guilt reported liking the candy more, and said they’d pay more for it, than those who hadn’t been thinking about guilt.

Goldsmith says she thinks this finding could suggest that doing something we associate with guilt might give us a sense of agency in our often tightly-constrained lives.

“Most of us, most of the time, we show up for work, we eat breakfast, we get our kids to school. It's like holding down a spring,” she says. “And when you just get a chance to let go…It can actually feel pretty excellent.”

Our pleasure systems can get out of whack

So yes, sometimes, a reality-TV marathon may be just the outlet you need at the end of a long work-week. But Berridge and Kringelbach both caution it’s possible for the different stages of the pleasure cycle to fall out of balance.

For example, we may get stuck in the “wanting” stage, and become especially motivated to do something – even when it no longer brings us pleasure. While Berridge typically studies this in the context of addiction, he says many people experience it with things like smartphones and video games that trigger our reward system.

“In today's modern world, we've got lots and lots more pleasures than our ancestors did readily available,” he says. “All kinds of things from foods to cultural things to all kinds of life enrichment. …[That] means that we have a brain wired to seek rare pleasures and we are now pursuing frequent multiple pleasures. We can be caught up in that very easily.”

Kringelbach notes that his research found that some of the most meaningful pleasures in life are the ones that bring us together with others.

He says the key to finding balance with the things we love may be to focus on social pleasures – things like cooking with friends and family or being part of a community. “You should share the love,” he says.

‘A ‘pleasure activist’ says embrace what gives you joy

One reason we may feel guilty about some of our pleasures is fear of how we’ll be perceived, says pleasure activist and gender studies professor Sami Schalk. She says a lot of us feel particularly vulnerable about the things we love..

“I think there’s an association with childhood too of it being childlike to really unabashedly love something,” she says. “And as adults we’re supposed to have restraint within our emotions, and that includes our joy.”

Schalk says that, a lot of the time, feelings like guilt or shame can lead us to cut off potential connections with others – ones that could bring us pleasure.

Schalk also encourages people to consider why they feel guilty about certain things that bring them pleasure.

“Nobody says opera is my ‘guilty pleasure’ because that is something that we think of as very well respected and important and associated with whiteness and upper class,” she says. “But often these other things that we refer to as guilty pleasures have these moral and social values to them that are often associated with marginalized people in our culture.”

So when people say they love things like romance novels and reality TV, it feels like “you're not supposed to, quote unquote, like these things,” she says. “But if you do, you have to signal that, you know, that it's not a good thing to like or indulge in by saying it's a guilty pleasure rather than just saying, I like this, I enjoy this, this is pleasurable for me.”

Schalk writes and speaks about the value of embracing our pleasures — she also practices this in her own life. In 2019, she tweeted a video of herself dancing in a handmade silver cape saying she wanted to twerk with Lizzo. And… she did.

After talking to Schalk, I thought about all the times I’ve pretended not to like a TV show or book for fear of being “uncool,” and all the potential conversations and experiences I may have missed with other people in my life who might enjoy those things, too. I decided when it comes to romantasy-induced pleasure, I'm ready to embrace the awkward moments and just share it with the world.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Carlson
Rachel Carlson (she/her) is a production assistant at Short Wave, NPR's science podcast. She gets to do a bit of everything: researching, sourcing, writing, fact-checking and cutting episodes.