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Daniel Kahneman is famous for his experience of the strange and counterintuitive ways that we make decisions. He is the only psychologist ever to win a Nobel Prize in Economics. More recently, he won critical raves for his bestselling book, Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman is also fascinated by the way that memory shapes our sense of self. He told Steve Paulson that our memories can be quite different from what we actually experience.
Daniel Kahneman: As you go through life, you live the present and moment s of the present are very short and then, they turn out into episodes. So, there is one way of thinking about life or thinking about well being or happiness is the quality of your experience as you go through life. Occasionally, you stop to evaluate yourself or you evaluate an episode or a meeting after it ended. You say, was this a good episode or a bad episode. This is your remembering self. So the experiencing self is the one that answers the question, does it hurt now. The remembering self is the one to answer the question, how was your trip to Albania? Oddly enough the remembering self doesn’t always know what the experiencing self went through. The remembering self tells itself a story about what happened and that story doesn’t always reflect the true experiences of what went on in the past.
Steve Paulson: Well, you have some fascinating experiments. I have to say that you are a genius in constructing some of these experiments. One of them was called the cold hand situation. Can you explain what you did there?
Kahneman: Yes, we asked people to immerse their hands up to their wrists in cold water, water at 14 degrees Celsius. At one occasion, they had water at 14 degrees Celsius.
Paulson: Well, which we should say is extremely cold.
Kahneman: It is extremely cold. It’s tolerable, but it hurts. Then, 7 minutes later we bring them in and we give them another experience. The other experience would be 1 minute at 14 degrees just the same as before, but instead of telling people as we had on the other occasion, take your hand out here is a warm towel, dry yourself, we did something else. We opened a valve and during the next 30 seconds the water became very slightly warmer. In fact, it got to 15 degrees Celsius. So, they had an experience that was strictly worse than the other experience. One is 60 seconds of pain then 30 seconds of diminishing pain but, still painful, not as good as warming your hand with a towel. Then you wait another 7 minutes and you come to those people and you say, well, you can choose either the experience with your left hand or the experience you had with your left hand. What do you choose? The larger majority of them, choose to expose themselves to the longer experience. That is they choose to expose themselves to more pain. Why? It’s because it ended well. When we tell ourselves stories, how they end is extremely important. So, you can take a bad story and make it better by adding suffering so long as the suffering that you are adding is diminishing, so that it ends as an improvement.
Paulson: So, you like to play with the way that people respond to suffering or the way that they think about suffering?
Kahneman: Well, this is the way that people think about lives. Think about the role of endings in life. So, you have the mother and the daughter and they haven’t been speaking to each other for years and the mother is dying and now they get reconciled and they have an hour together where they are at peace this is enormously important to us. The fact that the mother had the experience before she died of meeting her daughter again and loving her daughter again. Now, if you stop to think about it, the emphasis that we put on that is ridiculous. One hour and they were estranged for years and years , but what we think about, what our remembering self thinks about it thinks in stories and the story of the mother is very different when it ends that way. We are story tellers.
Paulson: I’ve often wondered if we can really call up the experience ourselves but every original experience is tainted by memory. We are always sort of reconstructing it in a somewhat fictional way.
Kahneman: Well, that certainly is the case. There always is a difference between the experiencing self and the remembering self and how you would weigh episodes in your life. I’ll give you an example, suppose you have a vacation that is 2 weeks long or the same vacation that is 1 week long. Suppose the second week is just as good as the first. In some real sense in terms of your experiencing self the longer vacation is twice as good as the first one, because the second week is as good as the first one and you had 2 weeks. In terms of the remembering self, there would barely be a difference between a 1 week vacation and a 2 week vacation if you stayed in the same place, because you are not adding many new memories. The valuation of life and the episode of life is very different if you take the perspective of maximizing the quality of experience. Very importantly we think of people with Alzheimer’s people with deficient memories, they still have an experiencing self. They may not remember, but they are still having experiences and you can make those better or worse.
Paulson: Getting back to the vacation example. I’ve sometimes wondered if it’s the actual experience of it and hopefully being enjoyable or how we think about it later on. Because the actual experience might only go a week or two weeks but there is a lifetime of what we make of that experience.
Kahneman: Yeah, but there is an actually interesting question which is, how much in your life do you actually consume your memories? I gave a talk about this last year. I told a story about the best vacation of my life which was in Antarctica for three weeks. I know it is the best memory in my life. I think about it occasionally as the best experience of my life. If I added up how long I have thought about in the last four years, I estimated it wildly as 25 minutes. So, the time that we spend remembering and the time we spend living are on different scales and yet we give enormous importance to the time that we spend remembering and to the memories and to the stories we tell.
Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winning Psychologist. He talked with Steve Paulson about his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. If you want to hear more from Kahneman you can hear more uncut interview on our website at www.ttbook.org/meetyourmind