Two Selves: Experiencing vs. Remembering

How we experience and remember things and how it affects our decision-making.

Two Selves: Experiencing vs. Remembering
Generated by AI

I finally finished reading the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. It took me about two years since I started. In this post, I am going to describe another thought-provoking concept from the chapter “Two Selves.” It is about how we experience and remember things and how it affects our decision-making. Let’s dive in…

But before we get into the post, I have a small announcement. My Ph.D. is about to end. My thesis defense is scheduled around the end of the month. If you are interested in attending it on zoom, please fill out this form. I covered the background concepts to understand my thesis defense in this video. Now, let’s get back to the post…

Daniel used this experiment of a painful surgery. Doctors tried many variants of a painful surgery. In some variations, the duration of the surgery was long (~70 minutes). In the other variations, the duration of the surgery was short (~4-10 minutes). For all variants, the maximum pain intensity was similar. The longer surgeries had more periods of lower pain in addition to the maximum pain. At the end of the experiment, they asked patients to rate the total amount of pain. 

A rational way to rate the pain would be to take the integral of the pain over time, that is, add the pain intensity for each point during the surgery. By that metric, the longer surgeries were more painful. However, it turns out that the patients rated lower total pain for the longer surgeries. The final ratings of the patients are explained by these patterns on how we remember things:

  1. Peak-end rule: We care more about the peak and end points of an experience than the average. In case of surgery, the peak pain was same for both experiments, but the shorter surgery ended just after the peak pain whereas the longer surgery’s end point was lower.
  2. Duration neglect: The duration of an experience is often ignored in our memories. 10 minutes of pleasant experiences can be ruined entirely by just a few seconds of a bad ending. Notice how Indian cricket fans remember the 2023 ICC Cricket World Cup. 

These patterns are further explained by another simple experiment. This time, a bunch of participants were asked to put one of their fingers in freezing cold water for 60 seconds. After a while, the same participants were asked to put another finger in the cold water for 90 seconds. But this time, the temperature was raised a little for the last 30 seconds. The first 60 seconds were the same as the first round. Finally, they asked each participant which variant they would do again, and most of them picked the second one. Clearly, the second variant is more painful (same 60 seconds of high pain + 30 seconds of low pain). However, the peak-end rule and duration neglect made them prefer the second variant over the first one. 

This suggests a clear distinction between the two sides of us. Daniel called it “Experiencing self” and “Remembering self.” Rationally, we want to make decisions for better experiences, but we usually make decisions based on our memory, which neglects a big part of our experiences.

Why that happens? The reason lies in how our two modes of thinking, System 1 and System 2, work. I explained them earlier in this post on when to rely on intuition. System 1 is intuitive and fast thinking mode, whereas System 2 can do detailed calculations and is lazy. Using System 2 consumes a large chunk of our energy, so for most tasks, we use System 1. Since System 1 needs to be fast (to handle too many tasks in a little time), it uses approximations like the peak-end rule. 

This actually raises many questions about individual and large-body policy design. For example, should doctors prefer longer surgery that technically is more painful for the patients' experiencing selves because the patients' remembering selves like it? Should we design our experiences to maximize the peaks and ends? While making future decisions, are we neglecting the duration of past experiences?

Let me know what you think!

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