Experience Vs. Memory - What Guides Our Lives?



Do you care more about your experiences or the memories you form from those experiences? It's certainly not an easy question to answer, and maybe, without much pondering, you would pick the former - the experiences.

But, let's rephrase this question. Imagine the vacation of your dreams, whether it's a tropical holiday on sunny beaches in the Bahamas or a mounting tour through the breathtaking Himalayas. Now, ask yourself: Would you choose the same vacation if all your memories of it would be erased? 

You can't escape the discomfort of this puzzle, and it's hard to believe that a vacation you will forget can have any real value for you. It turns out, it's in human nature that memories have much more impact on our lives than our experiences. 

Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a founding father of modern behavioral economics and Nobel laureate, posed this question in his TED talk. He explained the notion of dual self, the experiencing self and remembering self, and how they influence our happiness and decision making.

Experiencing Self Vs. Remembering Self

Daniel Kahneman published his groundbreaking book Thinking, Fast and Slow in 2011, where he summarized his work on decision-making. In the final chapter of this book, called Two Selves, the author describes the notion of division of human consciousness into the experiencing self and the remembering self.

The experiencing self is the intuitive, fast, and unconscious mode of thinking that lives in a moment and focuses on the quality of our experiences. Most of these moments will disappear into thin air in just a few seconds.

On the other hand, the remembering self is our conscious mode of thinking, which is rational and slow, seeing our lives in retrospect. It keeps track of our past and evaluates it. Accordingly, it creates our life story and an imaginary narrative of our future.

The experiencing self only cares about the present and how we feel at certain moments. It determines how much we enjoy the food we're currently eating or how much we hate being soaked in the rain. It makes us feel profoundly happy when we get married but extremely devastated when we lose a loved one. The remembering self only cares how we have felt and uses our past experiences as building blocks to create the story of our lives. 

However, this story is far from being a perfect representation of reality as some parts of it are lost, transformed, or imagined. But, nevertheless, it's the only story that we'll ever know.

How The Two Selves Impact Our Decision Making?

According to Kahneman, each moment that we experience lasts about three seconds, after which they are gone forever. What stays in our memory, or the parts that our remembering self keeps, are intense moments of the experience, drastic changes, and most importantly, the endings. We tend to paint the whole experience with the color or intensity of its ending.

For instance, if a person listens to a glorious symphony for twenty minutes but hears a horrendous screeching sound at the end of the performance, they might feel that the terrible ending ruined the entire experience. When in reality, it didn't ruin the experience as the person enjoyed the music for twenty minutes, but it did ruin the memory of it. And since the memory is the only thing we get to keep, the beautiful experience of listening to the glorious music accounts for nothing.

Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.

- Daniel Kahneman

To illustrate the workings of the two selves and the discrepancies between the conclusions they produce, Kahneman provides the results of the experiment he conducted in the early '90s. In this experiment, participants were undergoing a colonoscopy, which was still a painful procedure back then. The participants in group A of the study experienced milder pain for a more extended period of time with a rather gentle ending to the entire procedure. In contrast, group B participants were subjected to the painful procedure for a shorter period of time but experienced the pain spike at the end of it. As a result, the participants would later rather choose to undergo the longer procedure with moderate pain again, just to avoid the harsh and painful ending that got stuck in their memory.

Kahneman then concluded that during our decision-making, we're guided by the two main principles: the peak-end rule and the duration neglect. The Peak-end rule states that the intensity of a memory of an experience can roughly be predicted by the average intensity of the best or worst moments of the experience as well as its end. The duration neglect refers to the notion that the duration of any experience has no effect on its evaluation.

Focusing On The Positive Experiences of Our Experiencing Self

Kahneman's colonoscopy study reflects the impact of our negativity bias. Our brains are hard-wired to remember the negative experiences more intensely and tend to forget the subtle and more positive experiences, even though the latter is what our time mostly consists of. This might have been useful for our survival in the past, but nowadays, without immediate danger lurking at every corner, this bias brings us more misery than happiness.

It can shape our memory of a marriage, vacation, and life in general. A bitter divorce will contaminate all the good moments and time we spent with our partner. A bumpy flight on the way home from a vacation will stain the memory of it, even if we had a great time for a week or two. We tend to focus and remember the most critical parts and dreadful moments of an experience, even though the nature of that experience was generally satisfactory. 

What we can do is notice and bring to awareness all the decisions we're making as a reaction to the worst part of a story or a bad memory while neglecting the reality of the rest of the experience. The goal shouldn't be to dismiss or overlook what went wrong, but to deal with it while not losing sight of the bigger picture and our experiencing self's positive experiences. 

Once we manage to remember the good moments and experiences that nurture us, we’ll be able to keep going even when we’re dealing with difficulties and make decisions that will make us fulfilled and happy in time to come.

Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.

- Daniel Kahneman

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