Pleasure in Sports

Pleasure   and   displeasure   comprise   a   bipolar dimension that is the most important ingredient of core affect. As such, pleasure and displeasure provide texture to conscious experiences and form the foundation of emotions and moods. Furthermore, pleasure and displeasure have long been considered by  many  philosophers  and  psychologists  as  powerful  motives.  Pleasure  is  of  particular  interest  to exercise psychologists because, unlike many other health  behaviors,  exercise  can  induce  substantial changes  along  the  pleasure–displeasure  dimension, and these may, in turn, influence subsequent exercise behavior.

Pleasure–Displeasure as the Core Affective Dimension

In  1896,  Wilhelm  Wundt  wrote  that,  among  the “manifold of feelings,” one can distinguish certain “chief  affective  dimensions,”  the  first  of  which consists  of  “pleasurable  and  unpleasurable  feelings.” In the 1950s, Charles Osgood found that the first dimension to emerge from factor analyses of semantic  differential  items  comprised  such  adjective  pairs  as  pleasant–unpleasant,  good–bad,  and positive–negative. This factor explained well over half of the accounted variance. Subsequent analyses of affective adjectives, facial expressions, and emotional ratings of environments have confirmed that the  first  dimension,  accounting  for  the  majority of the variance, refers to pleasure–displeasure.

An interesting question is whether one can feel both pleasure and displeasure at the same time. For example, some runners say that running “hurts so good.” While empirical analyses consistently show that  pleasure  and  displeasure  are  polar  opposites (i.e.,  reciprocally  related)  and  cannot  co-occur  at the  exact  same  time,  cognitive  appraisals  may  be independent.  Thus,  someone  can  feel  “pleased” about  the  fact  that  exercise  induced  a  10-pound weight  loss  and  “displeased”  that  exercise  takes so  much  time.  In  these  cases,  the  “pleasure”  and “displeasure” reflect conflicting cognitive appraisals.  Likewise,  a  runner  may  experience  “hurt”  (a direct, unpleasant sensation from the body) while running but also feel “good” when appraising running  as  the  means  to  enhanced  fitness  and  better running performance.

Adaptational Properties

In the early 1900s, Herbert Spencer proposed that pleasure  and  displeasure  represent  evolutionary adaptations. Their functions make sense when considered  within  the  context  of  what  John  Bowlby later  called  the  “environment  of  evolutionary adaptedness,” the environment that shaped hominid evolution. From this perspective, pleasure and displeasure spread through the population because they   conferred   a   crucial   adaptational   advantage.  Pleasure  signifies  usefulness  and  provides an  inducement  to  approach  stimuli  that  promote Darwinian fitness (i.e., survival and reproduction). Displeasure signifies danger and acts as a deterrent.

These   ideas   also   apply   to   exercise-induced changes in pleasure and displeasure. Exercise can be “useful” in a Darwinian sense, since it provided the only means of subsistence for hunters and gatherers and it can maintain health and vitality. Therefore, it would make adaptational sense to link exercise to pleasure as a means of facilitating this useful activity.  On  the  other  hand,  exercise  can  also  increase the  risk  of  injury  (e.g.,  skeletal,  muscular,  cardiovascular) and death (e.g., from heat exhaustion or cardiac arrest). So it would also make adaptational sense to link exercise to displeasure as a means of maintaining exertion within safe parameters.


Physiologist Michel Cabanac coined the term alliesthesia  to  describe  a  phenomenon  whereby  the same stimulus may induce pleasure or displeasure, depending on the condition of the organism. For example,  a  certain  room  temperature  may  feel comfortable  in  the  summer  but  cold  in  the  winter.  Similarly,  a  level  of  exercise  intensity  may  be pleasant under normal circumstances but aversive or  intolerable  under  conditions  of  homeostatic perturbation  (e.g.,  sleep  deprivation,  fever,  dehydration, hypoglycemia, high ambient temperature and humidity).

Pleasure as “Common Currency”

Ethologists  have  long  grappled  with  the  problem of the forces that determine the behavior of an animal.  Animals  are  subjected  to  numerous  internal and external factors that can influence their behavior.  Some  of  these  may  be  in  conflict  (e.g.,  “go” and  “stop”  or  “approach”  and  “avoid”  signals). However,  since  an  animal  can  only  do  one  thing at a time (move in one direction), there must be a “behavioral final common path,” a mechanism that coverts these factors to a common scale (a “common currency”) so that they can be compared.

Michel  Cabanac  proposed  that  pleasure  is  this common  currency.  Pleasure  is  an  integral  component  of  all  experiences.  Furthermore,  evidence indicates that events register in memory not solely as  factual  information  (i.e.,  what,  where,  when) but also in terms of the pleasure or displeasure that accompanies  them.  Pleasure  is,  therefore,  ideally positioned for this role.

Cabanac offered evidence for his hypothesis by investigating  behavior  under  conditions  of  conflict. In one study involving use of a treadmill, he kept the speed of the treadmill fixed and allowed the  participants  to  choose  the  slope  or  kept  the slope fixed and allowed the participants to choose the  speed.  He  hypothesized  that  the  choices  the participants  would  make  would  be  intended  to maximize  pleasure  and/or  minimize  displeasure. Indeed,  the  choices  the  participants  made  were reciprocal,  resulting  in  approximately  constant power and constant ratings of pleasure. Moreover, their  choices  could  be  predicted  from  ratings  of pleasure–displeasure.

Varieties of Pleasure and Their Implications

Research  by  Daniel  Kahneman  has  shown  that the  pleasure–displeasure  experienced  at  different phases  of  an  episode  (e.g.,  a  medical  procedure) have different implications for subsequent behavioral  decisions.  Specifically,  the  peak  pleasure or  displeasure  (called  the  “peak  rule”)  and  the pleasure  or  displeasure  at  the  end  of  the  episode (called  the  “end  rule”)  are  weighed  more  heavily. On the other hand, how long the episode lasts and,  therefore,  the  total  amount  of  pleasure  or displeasure  experienced  appears  inconsequential (called “duration neglect”).

These  principles  have  interesting  implications for exercise. For example, an implication would be that,  as  long  as  exercise  practitioners  ensure  that (a)  pleasure  is  not  reduced  during  exercise,  so  as to induce a negative “peak” and (b) a cool-down is provided, to create a pleasant “end,” the duration of  the  activity  can  be  extended  without  adverse consequences  for  motivation.  A  study  by  Britton Brewer  and  collaborators  showed  that,  in  fact, participants prefer a longer and more energetically costly  bout  as  long  as  intensity  is  reduced  at  the end to increase pleasure.


  1. Brewer, B. W., Manos, T. M., McDevitt, A. V., Cornelius, A. E., & Van Raalte, J. L. (2000). The effect of adding lower intensity work on perceived aversiveness of exercise. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 22(2), 119–130.
  2. Cabanac, M. (1971). Physiological role of pleasure. Science, 173(4002), 1103–1107.
  3. Cabanac, M. (1992). Pleasure: The common currency. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 155(2), 173–200.
  4. Ekkekakis, P. (2003). Pleasure and displeasure from the body: Perspectives from exercise. Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 213–239.
  5. Kahneman, D., Fredrickson, B. L., Schreiber, C. A., & Redelmeier, D. A. (1993). When more pain is preferred to less: Adding a better end. Psychological Science, 4(6), 401–405.

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