Remembering the self

We don’t choose between experiences. We choose between memories of experiences, says Daniel Kahneman.

Published - January 08, 2015 04:27 pm IST

Psychology professor Daniel Kahneman

Psychology professor Daniel Kahneman

Well known behavioural economist, Daniel Kahneman, who shared the Nobel Prize in 2002, says: “There is a huge wave of interest in happiness, among researchers. There is a lot of happiness coaching. Everybody would like to make people happier. But in spite of all this flood of work, there are several cognitive traps that sort of make it almost impossible to think straight about happiness.”

What Kahneman has to say next is very much like the two birds mentioned in the Mundaka Upanishad…about two birds who sat on the same branch, one partook the fruits of life, and the other watched. In Kahneman’s world the two “birds” are, “There is an experiencing self, who lives in the present and knows the present, is capable of re-living the past, but basically it has only the present. It’s the experiencing self that the doctor approaches – you know, when the doctor asks, “Does it hurt now when I touch you here?” And then there is a remembering self, and the remembering self is the one that keeps score, and maintains the story of our life, and it's the one that the doctor approaches in asking the question, “How have you been feeling lately?” or “How was your trip to Albania?” or something like that. Those are two very different entities, the experiencing self and the remembering self, and getting confused between them is part of the mess about the notion of happiness.”

Kahneman continues, “…the remembering self is a storyteller. And that really starts with a basic response of our memories – Our memory tells us stories, that is, what we get to keep from our experiences is a story.” And then he gives an example of two patients who underwent colonoscopy to not just deliberate on the point but also add another dimension. One, patient B had a worse time but the operation ended with less pain than patient A’s who had suffered pain for a shorter duration, but right up to the end. “The stories of the colonoscopies were different, and because a very critical part of the story is how it ends. And the one that is worse is the one where pain was at its peak at the very end; it’s a bad story. How do we know that? Because we asked these people after their colonoscopy and much later, too, “How bad was the whole thing, in total?” And it was much worse for A than for B, in memory.”

“So we have the remembering self and the experiencing self, and they're really quite distinct. The biggest difference between them is in the handling of time. From the point of view of the experiencing self, if you have a vacation, and the second week is just as good as the first, then the two-week vacation is twice as good as the one-week vacation. That’s not the way it works at all for the remembering self. For the remembering self, a two-week vacation is barely better than the one-week vacation because there are no new memories added. You have not changed the story. And in this way, time is actually the critical variable that distinguishes a remembering self from an experiencing self; time has very little impact on the story,” says Kahneman

The remembering self does more than remember and tell stories. It is actually the one that makes decisions because…we actually don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences. “And even when we think about the future, we don’t think of our future normally as experiences. We think of our future as anticipated memories, “ says Kahneman. Happiness thus gets different definitions depending on whether it is measured against the experiencing self or the remembering self.

But, one thing is certain, says Kahneman, “In America people earning below 60,000 dollars a year are unhappy, and they get progressively unhappier, the poorer they get. Above that, we get an absolutely flat line. I mean I've rarely seen lines so flat. Clearly, what is happening is money does not buy you experiential happiness, but lack of money certainly buys you misery, and we can measure that misery very, very clearly. In terms of the remembering self, you get a different story. The more money you earn, the more satisfied you are…”

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