An amusing addition to the annals of human foibles, with a slight tree-of-good-and-evil aspect, from this morning’s NY Times:

Others, notably Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania, argue that the beneficial effects [of eating spicy chilis] are too small to explain the great human love of chili-spiced food. “I don’t think they have anything to with why people eat and like it,” he said in an interview. Dr. Rozin, who studies other human emotions and likes and dislikes thinks that we’re in it for the pain. “This is a theory,” he emphasizes. “I don’t know that this is true.”

But he has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.”

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No one knows for sure why humans would find pleasure in pain, but Dr. Rozin suggests that there’s a thrill, similar to the fun of riding a roller coaster. “Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they are actually not threats,” he said. “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.” And it says, hand me another jalapeño.

Other mammals have not joined the party. “There is not a single animal that likes hot pepper,” Dr. Rozin said. Or as Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”