daniel kahneman: experiencing self vs remembering self

something else that stuck out to me in daniel kahneman’s episode of on being was his thinking and research about the experiencing self and the remembering self. some of it still doesn’t quite sit right with me, but i believe it.

the experiencing self is the part of you the experiences things from moment to moment. it is you in the present. the remembering self is the part of you that constructs moments the experiencing self had and puts them together into a constructed memory. kahneman himself long believed that optimizing well-being of the experiencing self should be the priority. but over time, his own research forced him to change his mind.

at the moment, i feel more in alignment with old kahneman, although maybe there’s some nuance. as i think about mindfulness and being present and aware, it makes more sense to me that being well moment to moment is more important than being able to look back and construct a life that looks well in the past but wasn’t well in the moments it was lived.

though, now that i think about it, there is a quote that maybe bridges these two extremes:

how we spend our days is, of course, how we live our lives. — annie dillard, the writing life

the part that still blows my mind though is the experiments he ran about how a period of pain ends. he basically had people experience slight discomfort for a short amount of time. and either the moments ended pleasantly or still in discomfort. somehow, people chose the moments that ended pleasantly even if the length of time the pain was experienced was longer.

that blows my mind still. this is where the remembering self becomes more important than the experiencing self. and, in reality, that insight might have many many implications on how we design experiences for each other. i can already see an application in dentistry, lol.

there’s much more to say here, but i’ll just end this here for now and say that humans are fucking weird. amazing, but weird.

extended quote #1

Mr. Kahneman: I mean in one sense, well-being is something that you experience every second of your life: You are more or less happy. You are in a better or worse mood. And you can recall that continuously, and that’s the well-being of the experiencing self. But then, there is another way of measuring well-being, which is to stop people and to ask them to think about their life and to say whether their life is good or bad. It’s completely different. That’s the well-being of the remembering self; it’s an act of memory and construction. And the two are quite different.

Ms. Tippett: Does one of these, the experiencing self or the remembering self, always trump the other, or is that a different dynamic in any given life?

Mr. Kahneman: No, that’s the interesting part, I think. When I started out in this line of research, I started out as a strong believer that the reality of life is what the experiencing self is. I mean it’s what happens as you live. And I thought that’s vastly more important than what people think about their life, which, after all, is a construction. And I went about defending the experienced well-being as the more important one. And eventually, I had to change my mind.

And I had to change my mind and to conclude that there is no way you can ignore remembering self or life evaluation, because what people want is not the well-being of their experiencing self. What people want is more closely associated with the remembering self. It’s — they want to have good memories. They want to have good opinions of themselves. They want to have a good story about their life.

extended quote #2

Ms. Tippett: Well, let’s talk about some of the ways you help us understand ourselves. You’ve talked about the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.” So these are some of the dynamics that go into the contradictory way we process reality. So describe what you’re talking about there.

Mr. Kahneman: Well, to describe this, I’ll describe an experiment, which was — we did it, and it was quite influential in my own thinking. So this is what you do. You invite people to participate in an experiment, and the subject of the experiment is pain. So they know that. And you ask them to stick their hand in cold water for a while, until they’re told to take it out. In one condition, you hold your hand in cold water for 60 seconds. In another condition, you hold your hand in cold water for 60 seconds, and then for — without any break, for 30 additional seconds, but during the last 30 seconds of your experience, the temperature of the water is raised by one degree Celsius, about two degrees Fahrenheit. And then you ask them, which of the two experiences you had, with your right hand or with your left hand, would you like to repeat? And they pick the longer one — not “they,” a significant majority of people pick the longer one. Now, that’s absurd, because the longer one contains the 60 seconds of pain that the short experience contains, plus 30 additional seconds of diminishing pain. So it’s more pain, the 90 seconds, and yet, people don’t actually store their experience in that way. They form an impression of the experience they had, and, in that impression, there are two moments that play a significant role, and that’s the peak of your pain and the pain at the end of the episode.

Ms. Tippett: Right, how it ended.

Mr. Kahneman: And how it ends, it ends better for the 90-seconds hand than for the 60-seconds hand. And that’s the thing that people want to repeat. And associated with it is something that is really crazy, but it’s a fact. We call it “duration neglect.” That is, people in those kinds of situations are radically insensitive to how long the experience lasts. We have done that with actual medical experiences.

Ms. Tippett: So this translates into real life crises.

Mr. Kahneman: Oh, yeah, it’s been tested with people who are having their kidney stones broken up or with patients having a colonoscopy. So it’s for real. People who have had 20 minutes of pain can say that they had a better experience than people who had five minutes of pain, if the 20 minutes ended well.

Ms. Tippett: Well, to me, the classic example of that is childbirth. [laughs]

Mr. Kahneman: That’s right. Well, childbirth is a bit complicated. In childbirth, there is duration neglect in memory, when you just remember that it was long, but your evaluation of the experience is very much colored by the fact that, for most women, it ends well.

Ms. Tippett: Right, how it ended. You have this new life.

Mr. Kahneman: How it ended, yeah. That’s why people have — women have more than one child.

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