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Our Two Selves: Experiencing and Remembering

The past decade has witnessed an explosion of new ways to look at how we humans make decisions.
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The past decade has witnessed an explosion of new ways to look at how we humans make decisions. These insights have sprouted from the fields of psychology, computational neuroscience and behavioral economics. The traditional model of how we choose is centered around psychic conflict, warring parts of the mind, instinct vs. reason, id against ego, unconscious motivations avoiding conscious recognition. Both Freud and Plato used allegories of mental conflict that depicted a battle between a horse and its rider.

Both paint a picture of human intellect or reason fighting forces within us that lead us astray. These unconscious agents distort our perception of "reality" and hide our true motivations. But there has always been an optimism about overcoming these influences through self-awareness and discipline.

More recent work is less sanguine about even such basic things as our ability to know what makes us happy, or the capacity to store accurate memories of what we've experienced.

Daniel Kahneman, who received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 for his work on decision-making, has elegantly demonstrated how our brain is designed in such a way that we often cannot trust our preferences to reflect our interests. His work vividly shows how this is a consequence of having two mental operating systems, an experiencing self and a remembering self.

The experiencing self is the "you" in the moment who lives through the event. The remembering self is the "you" that writes the history. It is also the remembering self that is consulted when planning the future. Choices are made based on the remembering self's construction of what happened in the past. Now here's the problem. The experiencing self and the remembering self don't agree on what happened. In fact, Kahneman has shown that certain discrepancies are hard-wired. Let's look at some examples.

Subjects had a hand immersed in ice water at a temperature that causes moderate pain. They were told that they would have three trials. While the hand was in the water the other hand used a keyboard to continuously record their level of pain. The first trial lasted 60 seconds. The second trial lasted 90 seconds, however in the last 30 seconds the water was slowly warmed by 1 degree (better but still painful). For the third trial, they were allowed to choose which of the first two trials was less disagreeable, and repeat that one.[1]

Here's what they found. Are you sitting down? Eighty percent of the subjects who reported experiencing some decrease in their pain in the last 30 seconds of the second trial chose to repeat the 90-second experience! In other words, their remembering self-selected the option that required an additional 30 seconds of suffering.

What gives?

Many similar experiments have revealed two rules that govern the remembering self's recording of an experience.

1. Duration does not count.

2. Only the peak (best or worst moment) and the end of the experience are registered.

This has profound implications. For instance, should a doctor attempt to minimize a patient's memory of pain or experience of it? A procedure's duration and anesthesia level would be addressed differently depending on the priority.

It is only by confusing experience and memory that we believe experiences can be ruined. Kahneman speaks of "the tyranny of the remembering self" in the way it makes decisions.

We seem to be in the business of creating memories, not experiences.

I'll leave you with a question that will tell you something about your relationship with experience versus memory. You have a choice of two vacations. One is your fantasy of the perfect getaway. It could not be improved upon. The second is a typical good vacation. The only caveat is that if you choose to go on the dream vacation, you will have no memory of it.

Your call.

Please share how you made your decision in the comments section below.


[1] Daniel Kahneman, Barbara L. Fredrickson, Charles A. Schreiber and Donald A. Redelmeier. "When More Pain is Preferred to Less; Adding a Better End." Psychological Science. 4 (1993): 401-405.

For more by Paul Spector, M.D., click here.

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