Why We Don’t Learn from Experience
How do you measure the quality of your life? Is it the sum of your best and worst moments — births, deaths, weddings, funerals, successes, failures — or is it the mundanity of living that connects them together?
Unless you drive race cars for a living, extreme experiences constitute barely a fraction of your life, but they occupy disproportionate space in your mind. Your daily existence, on the other hand, is the bulk of your experience, yet it hums along unnoticed in the background.
Why do outlier moments carry so much weight in how we assess our lives ? What does it mean for the choices we make and how satisfied we feel with life in general? These questions are not just idle curiosities, as you will soon find out; they reveal a hidden, but essential characteristic of being human.
In his seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman relates the story of a now-classic experiment that he and a colleague ran in the early-90’s. In this study, two groups of people were subjected to a colonoscopy. If you don’t know what that is, I’ll just leave you with this: a long tube with a camera at the end, probing your backside. Not exactly something you would look forward to on a Wednesday morning. In case you’re curious, back then colonoscopies were done mostly without the aid of modern anesthetics.
Now, the procedure was the exactly the same for the two groups except that the second group was on the operating table for twice as long. When asked to report on the pain they experienced during the procedure, guess who had the worse story to tell? Congratulations are in order if you answered Group 2, because you are like most normal human beings. However, you are also dead wrong.
It was the first group, which had the shorter procedure that reported a worse experience! How could this be? The answer lies in two simple words: peaks and endings. The most painful moments for both groups were almost similar in intensity. However, for the first group this high-pain moment was towards the end of the procedure while for the second group, the peak pain was around the halfway mark. And this fact made all the difference in how the two groups recalled their experience.
The patients in the colonoscopy study were subject to what is now known as the peak–end rule. This is a psychological thumb-rule in which we judge an experience on the basis of how we felt at the most intense moment, and more importantly, at the ending. The sum-total of the experience is not considered in our evaluation at all. Whether the experience is pleasant or unpleasant, our judgment of it remains largely unaffected by its duration. It’s like watching a 5-minute post-match highlight segment and assuming that the actual game was equally exciting.
Why this happens comes down to the peculiar nature of memory. Unlike what most people think, memory is not like a video camera that faithfully records each moment of our experience. It’s more like a sensationalist reporter, who hones in on the juiciest bits and spins a whole story around them.
In simple words: memory is not recall, it’s reconstruction. Every time you remember something your brain extracts the moments it had stored at the time of the experience and strings them together in a plausible story. And guess which moments stick the most in memory? The juicy ones of course! The ones that were most memorable, even if they were a small part of the whole experience.
The outsized impact of endings also has an important role to play in how our words our perceived by others. What people take away from conversations is not the whole gist, but the most interesting bits, especially the ending. So the overall content of what you say might have less weight than how you end. If you tell your partner “I love you, but…”, they will forget the ‘love’ part and only remember what comes after the ‘but’.
The lesson? Endings are powerful.
The peak-end rule wouldn’t be as interesting if it were just a quirk of memory, but what it actually reveals is the presence of two distinct selves within us. Kahneman, who won the Nobel prize in 2002 for co-inventing behavioral economics along with with Amos Tversky, calls these two inhabitants the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self is the one that does the living for you. It is right there in the moment, feeling the pleasure or the pain that you are being subjected to.
However, despite being at the forefront of all your experiences, the experiencing self has no voice of its own. When you ask yourself how an experience felt, it is the remembering self that steps in and answers. It is the remembering self that keeps score of all that you experience, and makes future choices based on what it has stored. But as we already know, it does not record an event faithfully.
The language of memory is stories. When you recall a past experience it’s not isolated facts that come to mind, but a story. Moreover, this story-building happens automatically without any conscious effort on your part. This is why you are blissfuly unaware that what you’re recalling might not be your actual experience. This unquestioned acceptance of the remembering self’s narrative has three importance consequences.
First, it might lead us to make the wrong decisions. Our tastes and decisions are dictated by the remembering self because it is the one who has the key to the past. But as we know already, we don’t choose experiences, we choose memories of experiences. And memory is an unreliable guide at best, which is why we might set ourselves up for inferior experiences.
Consider the colonoscopy patients in the example at the beginning. The first group, which faced a shorter procedure would be less willing to come for a follow up because they have a worse memory of their experience. The second group would have the exact opposite preference and would therefore put their experiencing self through unnecessary trauma.
Second, it determines how we live in the present. As Kahneman said in a TED talk, we think of our future as anticipated memories, which means we seem to subconsciously know that it is the memories we will access later, so we look to optimize them rather than the actual experience.
Think of all the photos you take on vacations but hardly look at later. Or the sea of mobile phones help up high at a concert, recording the moment for posterity. In both cases, we undermine our real experiences just so that we have the option of revisiting pleasant memories later. The mute experiencing self gets the short end of the stick again.
Third, it might bias our evaluation of how our lives are going. How we think about the quality of our lives depends on the difference between the two selves. When you ask people if they are happy, they don’t think whether they are happy in their lives. They think whether they’re happy about their life. This subtle switch means that we do not consider the same things when we think about our life and when we are actually living.
When you wonder if you’re happy the remembering self promptly creates a story of your life based on the things that are most salient at that point in time. Take money, for example. Research has shown that beyond an income level ($ 60,000 in the US) people’s happiness stays constant. But if you ask the same people if their income level makes them happy, the reported happiness continues to rise even after the $60k level.
So where does that leave us? Given we don’t have access to our actual, felt experience, how do we ever make the right decisions? Is it possible to break free of the peak-end rule and accurately judge the quality of our experiences? I believe there is reason to be hopeful.
The first step in that direction is to simply be aware that your memory is unreliable. If you expect to make future choices on the basis of a specific experience, make sure you record how you are feeling while you are undergoing that experience. Journaling is a simple and powerful way to do this. Even if your memory runs riot — which it most probably will — you will still have your notes from the past anchoring you to reality.
More broadly, an awareness of the two selves should teach us to show more love to our experiencing self. It is this part of us that feels the joy, thrill, pain and disappointment that life throws at us. The best way to give the experiencing self its due is to do what the sages and philosophers have always taught us: live in the Now. Be present and see the world as it really is, because life is in living, not in looking back.