Two Selves

Two patients A and B underwent a painful colonoscopy procedure. Every 60 seconds the patients indicated the level of pain they experienced at that moment. The scale of pain is from 0 (no pain) to 10 (intolerable pain). The pain intensity is plotted in the y axis and the duration of the procedure is plotted in the x axis.


Assuming that the two patients used the scale of pain similarly, which patient suffered more?

Most of us would answer that patient B suffered more.

The actual patients were asked to rate their experience after the procedure. Patient A retained a much worse memory of the episode than patient B. Is this not strange? There are two reasons for this strange response.

  1. Peak-end rule – The patients only remembers the average pain at the peak and end. For patient A the pain at the peak was 8 and at the end was 7. Hence the overall pain remembered is their average 7.5. For patient B the pain at the peak was 8 and at the end was 1. Hence the overall pain remembered is their average 4.5.
  2. Duration neglect – The duration of the procedure had no effect whatsoever on the ratings of total pain.

The experience they had during the procedure is different from the experience they recollect from their memory after the procedure.  This means that the experience that gets stored in the patients memory is different from their actual experience. In the book Thinking Fast Slow – Daniel Kahneman calls this as experiencing self and remembering self.

The experiencing self is the one that answers the question: “Does it hurt now?” The remembering self is the one that answers the question: “How was it, on the whole?” Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt was we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions.

Remembering self is what stores our experience and it governs our decisions. Now consider the following question

How much pleasure do you get from your car?

Most of us get pleasure from our car when we think about it. But how often do we think about our car? Most of the time we think about other things while driving. Our mood (pleasure or pain) is determined by what we think about while driving and not the car.

When you tried to rate how much you enjoyed your car, you actually answered a much narrower question: “How much pleasure do you get from your car when you think about it?” The substitution caused you to ignore the fact that you rarely think about your car, a form of duration neglect. If you like your car, you are likely to exaggerate the pleasure you derive from it, which will mislead you when you think of the virtues of your current vehicle as well as when you contemplate buying a new one.

We give more weight to our remembering self and not the experiencing self. This is one of the reasons why we end up buying an expensive car. We fall for the effect of focusing illusion. It can be described in a single sentence.

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.

The same logic can be applied for why we want to buy a large and an expensive house. It will not make us happier in the longer term as we do not think about the house every day. Our happiness will be determined by what we do every day. In fact our experiencing self will be miserable if we take a mortgage which we cannot afford.

Remembering self is important. But we should also give importance to our experiencing self. After all we are in experiencing self most of the times. Doing things that we enjoying doing everyday will keep our experiencing self happy.

Watch the excellent video by Daniel Kahneman on Well-Being: Living, and thinking about it

3 thoughts on “Two Selves

  1. Awesomely summarized. I have been wanting to read Thinking Fast and slow from quite a while.
    But It was nice reading a concise take on irrationality influencing our decisions and day-to-day life.

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