Our (remembering) self

ImageOne of the experiments that most powerfully affected me from Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow was the cold water trial.

Participants went through a trial where they measured levels of pain while placing one hand in cold water. They had one 60 second trial in 14 degree Celsius water, which is painfully cold but not unbearable. They had a second trial that lasted longer – for 90 seconds, where 60 seconds were in the cold water, then another 30 seconds in that water that was secretly made one degree warmer. The trials were carefully controlled – participants were randomly assigned different hands and different orders for their trials, and didn’t know how long their trials were.

They were then given the option of repeating one of the trials. Over 80% chose the longer trial, voluntarily choosing to suffer 30 extra seconds of needless pain. If they’d been told the trial was longer, they wouldn’t have picked it. But how people remembered pain and how they actually experienced pain was different.

This is due to a conflict between our remembering and experiencing selves. Our experiencing self suffers more pain while the trial is happening – but our remembering self remembers only the worst or best moment, and the end. This is called the ‘peak-end rule’. Kahneman then explores the implications of this for doctors, national happiness, and palliative care at the end of life. Should doctors aim to minimise pain at the end of the procedure, not control it during? Are you happier with more money?

However, what blows me away about this is how this changes our notion of self. We constantly alter how we actually experience the world around us, in order to fit in with our memories and our sense of self. Every minute, we are changing what is actually happening in order to construct our own narratives, overcoming actual real-life experience in order to form cohesive memories.

Who we are is not what we are experiencing – but what we remember.

We are the stories we tell ourselves.

Extra link: Daniel Kahneman on The Riddle of Experience vs Memory, TED


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