The riddles of forgetting and remembering

Fountain (St. Petersburg, RU) © Natalia Martinez

I love this TED video by Daniel Kahneman, “widely regarded as the world’s most influential living psychologist, Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel in Economics for his pioneering work in behavioral economics – exploring the irrational ways we make decisions about risk.” I think it is a fantastic and enriching video, and I very much recommend it!

Kahneman begins the talk by introducing several cognitive traps make it impossible for the human mind to think accurately about happiness.

1.)   The term happiness is applied to too many things, thus grossly oversimplifying what is actually a very complicated

2.)   Confusion between experience and memory.

3.)   The “focusing illusion” – we can’t think of circumstances that affect well being without distorting its importance

Kahneman also talks about the difference between the ‘experiencing self’ and the ‘remembering self,’ the two distinct entities in each of us. It turns out that most of the moments in our lives are completely ignored by the remembering self, which begs the question: shouldn’t every moment of our lives count for something?  This is where the selves begin to diverge. The assessment and value of time (and its impact on stories) is the main way that they differ.

Importantly, the remembering self is the one that makes decisions. If you’re choosing between two doctors and had a negative experience with one of them, you will choose the other one based on your memories. That seems pretty Duh!, but the gold nugget of information here is that we do not make decisions based on our experiences, we make them based on our memories of those experiences. The problem comes because our memory distorts how we store what actually happens to us. For example, if you have an experience that was pleasant for 20 minutes but ended in pain, you will consider the entire experience ruined, despite having had a good time for the majority of it. Thus, the bottom line is that we use memories of the past to guide decisions about the future.  And that, friends, Romans, countrymen is why we are often misguided in our assessments.

One of the things I found most surprising is the following quote: “We don’t think of our future as experiences, we think of it as anticipated memories.” Why do we put so much weight on memory relative to experience, especially when we spend so little time reminiscing comparatively to the length of the experience?? What I mean by that is that if you take an amazing three-week vacation, that is a long time of experiencing…how long will we spend remembering this vacation and deriving happiness from this memory in the future: a couple of minutes every once in a while? It seems like an unbalanced reality.

Kahneman also insists that the happiness of the remembering self is different tan that of the experiencing self, and that studies in psychology should measure these separately.  Surprisingly, he maintains that the two are not even that related!! In other words, knowing how much someone is satisfied with their life (the remembering self) does not have a high level of correlation with how happy they are at the moment (their experiencing self).

Happiness studies and behavioral economics are incredibly fascinating and useful fields, but  I can’t help but thing that with this increase in knowledge about and exposure to our own behavior, the onus is on us to use this information to better inform our perceptions and decisions…and that seems like no easy task.


One response to “The riddles of forgetting and remembering

  1. Hi Natalia! Am loving discovering your blog as some truly interesting “musings”. I think this latest post is really great. One thought. What does Kahneman say, if anything about the value of happiness as they relate to the remembered self? Take for examples the three week vacation. Post-vacation you may have think often of being back in the beach or in that city, etc. but gradually you are bound to think about it less and less. However, what if the process is more like a distillation of the experience. Like a diamond getting pressed and achieving greater and greater value as it is hardened. So the specific memories of moments fade into memories of feeling, but achieve a greater value in so doing. So when I think of a moment from the trip “happiness” is immediately called up and I feel happier for having had that experience. This increased value in the memory would seem to counter balance the disproportionate amount of time spent having the experience versus recalling said experience.

    or I could be way off…..

    All the best

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