Experience and Memory

Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” maps out his life’s work in behavioral economics, which was immensely interesting for me to learn about. Out of all the fascinating findings he described, the subject in the last few chapters made me ruminate the most.

To understand how experienced utility is measured, Daniel first introduces the concept of a “hedonimeter”, which was first proposed by economist Francis Edgeworth. How much pain one experiences while undergoing a painful surgery can be precisely calculated by the “area under the curve”, meaning the intensity of the emotion multiplied by the duration. This seems logical enough, especially when there are so many systems in physics and engineering work precisely in this way.

However, after conducting experiments carefully monitoring the participants’ response at each timestamp of the surgery, and then asking them about how much pain they experienced during the surgery afterwards, they discovered something quite different from what the hedonimeter predicts. Patient 1 and patient 2 may have experienced the same level of peak pain intensity, however, if one of them was experiencing high levels of pain right around the end of the surgery, he would rate the experience more painful even if the duration was a lot shorter than the other patient.

There are 2 rules to be concluded:

peak-end rule: the global retrospective rating was well predicted by the average of the level of pain reported at the worst moment of the experience and at its end.

duration neglect: the duration of the procedure had no effect whatsoever on the ratings of total pain.

Daniel also derived the conflict of interest of the 2 selves:

the experiencing self is the one that answers the question: “does it hurt now?”

the remembering self is the one that answers the question: “how was it, on the whole?”

I always know that humans make misjudgments in some conflicting and illogical way, but it was very refreshing having someone point out the mechanism to me. When we remember a past experience, the experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. “What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience.”

To illustrate his point, Daniel writes about his experience watching the opera La Traviata. In the last 10 minutes of the opera, the lead male is supposed to meet the woman he loves at her deathbed. It was during that time, the audience get most emotionally invested, and become excited that the guy made it on time before the woman dies. Daniel says that it is the last 10 minutes that makes this opera so gripping and memorable.

This reminds me of seeing Bizet’s Carmen at the Met Opera a month ago (such a good show!!!). During the most part of the performance, Carmen flirts with various men and acquires a couple of lovers. However, it was the last few minutes that was the most gripping part. When lover #1 forces Carmen to choose him over lover #2, Carmen refused, saying that she loves lover #2 and would rather die than to be with lover #1, and she was in the end tragically murdered by him. Although the first couple of hours, the theme of the opera was mostly light, full of sing, dancing and flirting, the tragic death at the end definitely made me remember the story as a tragedy than a comedy. I remember for the remainder of that evening, I was still very much emotionally invested in her death and felt really sad.

The takeaway, in my opinion, of learning about the two sometimes conflicting selves, is that we should always make the ending of experiences more enjoyable, if possible. Also, now that we have learned about such discrepancy, we should try to evaluate our experiences as a whole and refrain ourselves from evaluating it at the peak and at the end. This could be very powerful when remembering painful experiences. Most of the times we try to focus on the pain and remind ourselves of how much we were hurt, but there almost always should be some good times in between the bad that we unconsciously choose to ignore.

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