What we experience and what we remember
A woman attends a concert. The orchestra plays her favorite symphony. As she listens, the beauty of the performance gives her great pleasure. However, in the last minute of the piece a loud noise is heard. She says it ruined the whole experience.
We know this is not true. In fact, 99% of her experience was glorious. The noise at the end of the concert ruined her memory of the experience.
Daniel Kahneman, who received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 for his work on decision-making, tells this story. His work vividly shows how the concertgoer’s experience is a consequence of having two mental operating systems, an experiencing self and a remembering self.
The experiencing self is the “you” in the present. When the doctor asks, “does it hurt when I press here?” it is the experiencing self that answers. The remembering self is a storyteller, the “you” that writes the history. When the doctor asks, “how have you been feeling?” it is the remembering self that replies.
What we keep from our experiences is the story our remembering self tells us. The remembering self is consulted when planning the future. Choices are made based on the remembering self’s narrative construction of the past.
Now here’s the problem. The experiencing self and the remembering self don’t agree on what happened. In fact, Kahneman has shown that the discrepancies are hard-wired into the two operating systems.
Let’s look at an experiment that exemplifies this.
Subjects had a hand immersed in ice water at a temperature that causes moderate pain. They were told that they would have three trials. While the hand was in the water the other hand used a keyboard to continuously record their level of pain. The first trial lasted 60 seconds. The second trial lasted 90 seconds, however in the last 30 seconds the water was slowly warmed by 1 degree (better but still painful). For the third trial, they were allowed to choose which of the first two trials was less disagreeable, and repeat that one.
Here’s what they found. Are you sitting down? Eighty percent of the subjects who reported experiencing some decrease in their pain in the last 30 seconds of the second trial chose to repeat the 90-second (longer) experience. Their memory of the experience where they actually suffered more told them it was the less painful experience.
This experiment has been repeated in many forms with the same results.
The remembering self is a storyteller. What defines a story are significant moments and most importantly endings. The rules that govern the remembering self’s recording of an experience are no different.
Duration does not count. Only the peak (best or worst moments) and the end of the experience are registered. In fact the story’s ending has the power to define the quality of the experience even if it differs from what preceded it.
This has profound implications. When we spend time with people we assume the nature of the interaction will be recalled on the basis of some sort of overall impression derived from all the content, ups and downs of the exchange. This, we imagine defines our recollection of the experience.
But this is not so. It is the ending, how we part, that has the most powerful effect on how the interaction will be recalled.
So reconsider how you end an encounter. It can provide an opportunity to redefine or reinforce what you want a person to remember about you.
I’ll leave you with a question that will tell you something about your relationship with experience versus memory. Most people’s answer demonstrates that we are in the business of creating memories, not experiences.
You have a choice of two vacations. One is your fantasy of the perfect getaway. It could not be improved upon. The second is a typical good vacation. The only caveat is that if you choose to go on the dream vacation, you will have no memory of it.
Which holiday would you choose?
Originally published at medium.com