As I near the end of “Thinking Fast and Slow” I am thrown yet another mind boggling insight into the human self by Daniel Kahneman. The idea of the two selves in every person. Not exactly Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But more like our experiencing self and our remembering self. I think the case for human irrationality cannot be made more strongly than this. Ever since Dan Ariely’s first book on Human Irrationality, which was about seven years ago I have been trying to instill these concepts into my life. Concepts that were further reinforced in Freakonomics and subsequent books by Dan Ariely. But this time I feel irrationality has been taken to a whole new level.
Can you ever reconcile with the idea that you would choose more pain just because of the way it is experienced and remembered? This is based on an experiment conducted on pain. For example you could experience a consistent level of pain for longer and in total be more than short bursts of intense pain but your experiencing self is unable to deal with duration. The only thing that sticks are those intense moments. The variations. Perhaps it is because we adapt and are able to deal with a consistent level of intensity and therefore it is not as bad as shorter bursts of intense pain. Memory fails to recreate the experience of time. Therefore when comparing a short intense burst with a longer duration we end preferring a longer duration not realizing that we are actually making the more painful choice.
This gives us a very interesting insight into the difference between experience and memory. Memories matter more and therefore the moments worth remembering have a far greater value to us compared to the experiences we actually encounter. It also explains why we tend to take more photographs on a vacation or a trip rather than fully indulge in the experience. We are creating memories and that are more meaningful than the experience itself. You could be experiencing bliss for a long time but it wont matter so much. Therefore a one week vacation in three cities may enable you to create more memorable moments that would be cherished long after the trip versus being in a single city for three weeks because the experience of time, the duration won’t matter much if the city does not allow you to create that many memorable moments.
Similarly the way we look and think about life also has something to do with how our brain works. Experiencing well-being and thinking about life satisfaction can be two completely different things. The age old answer to how satisfied a person is with their life has a lot to do with what aspect one thinks about. Regardless of the kind of wellbeing one is experiencing the response can be easily manipulated by small triggers. For example, when conducting this survey some respondents were made to feel lucky when they came upon a coin left deliberately there to be found and it influenced their response to be more positive. Recency of that positive memory trumped the overall experience of their life. Similarly other aspects like “how happy you are with you car” is not something you actively think about when you are driving and therefore it may not impact your life satisfaction. It is only when you are made to think about it do you realize that it is something that makes you happy. The point being that a lot of times the ability of something to make you happy is when you actually pause to think about it. The experience is not what makes you happy but the memory of it when you consciously think about it.
In the same way, your ability to draw happiness from something is also related to your ability to think about the act and know that you are doing it. Based on a research on the eating habits of American and French women it was learnt that French enjoy their meal times more just because they think about it and actually notice the act of eating and enjoying their food. Unlike Americans who tend to multi-task and not give much heed about the act of eating and therefore do not enjoy it as much because they don’t deliberately focus on it. The point of it all is to highlight the differences between the two selves, the experiencing self and the remembering self. Knowing that memories play a bigger role in how happy you feel about life, you can consciously enhance your happiness by thinking about the good things and making the most of every positive experience, from a nice meal to a beautiful sunset. Just simply pause and focus on that moment. Failing to do so may make you feel miserable despite having the most positive experiences possible. In the same way, pain too can be dealt with if it is consistent. Let’s take consistently adverse weather. If it is consistently hot or cold we are able to deal with it. This is why there is no evidence of people being unhappier just because they live in a very hot or cold area.
These insights into the human mind are simply amazing and quite counterintuitive at times. From the fact that we are more attuned and responsive to negativity, to how our fear of disappointment and regret drives us to make economically poor decisions, to how we look at the past and narrate incidents in retrospect, thinking we have understood them for what they are, while they maybe nothing more than an illusion of understanding, to this post on our two selves. And so ends my coverage of Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow”. Hope you enjoy reading this and would be inspired to read the full book. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments on these insights in the section below.Feature image by Camille Strippoli used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License