09 Jul Your Two Selves (ROLF DOBELLI)
I’d like to introduce you to two people you know very well, although not by name: your experiencing self and your remembering self.
Your experiencing self is the part of your conscious mind that experiences the present moment. In your case, it’s reading these words right now. In a while it will experience you shutting the book, putting it down, maybe getting to your feet and brewing a cup of tea. Your experiencing self experiences not only what you’re currently doing but also what you’re thinking and feeling as you do it. It perceives physical conditions like tiredness, toothache or tension, mixing it all together into a single experienced moment.
How long does a moment last? Psychologists estimate three seconds, give or take. That’s the span of time we perceive as the present. Basically, it’s all the experienced things we condense into “now.” Longer periods are perceived as a series of individual moments. Discounting time spent asleep, this adds up to approximately twenty thousand moments per day—about half a billion moments over an average lifespan.
What happens to all the impressions hurtling through your brain every second? The vast majority are irretrievably lost. Test yourself: what exactly did you experience twenty-four hours, ten minutes and three seconds ago? Maybe you had to sneeze. Or you looked out of the window. Brushed a crumb off your trousers. Whatever it was, it’s gone now. We retain less than a millionth of our experiences. We’re gigantic experience-vanishing machines.
That was your experiencing self. The second person I’d like to introduce is your remembering self. This is the part of your conscious mind that gathers, evaluates and organizes the few things your experiencing self hasn’t thrown away. If, twenty-four hours, ten minutes and three seconds ago, you were putting the best praline you’ve ever tasted into your mouth, then perhaps your remembering self does in fact still know that.
The difference between your two selves can be amply illustrated with a simple question. Are you happy? Take a little time to answer the question.
Okay. How did you get on? If you consulted your experiencing self, it will have replied with your currently experienced condition, your mental state during that exact three-second interval. As the author of the words you’re reading, I naturally hope the response was positive. If, however, you asked your remembering self, it will have given you a broad assessment of your overall mood—roughly how you’ve been feeling recently, and how generally satisfied you are with your life.
Unfortunately, the two selves rarely give the same reply. Researchers studied happiness among students during the holidays. With some they randomly surveyed their momentary state, texting them questions several times a day. With others, they questioned the students at the end of the holiday. The result? The experiencing self was less happy than the remembering self. Not surprising, really. I’m sure you’ve heard of rose-tinted glasses: lots of things seem better in retrospect. But this also means we shouldn’t trust our powers of recall, because they’re prone to systematic errors.
What’s going on here? Daniel Kahneman calls it the peak–end rule, which we encountered in Chapter 1. He realized that we remember most clearly the peak of an episode, i.e., the moment of greatest intensity, and the end. Hardly anything else filters through into our memories.
Not even duration matters. The students didn’t factor in the length of the experiment at all, whether it lasted sixty or ninety seconds. This holds true more generally: whether you’re on holiday for one week or three, your memory of it will be roughly the same. This cognitive bias is called duration neglect, and apart from the peak–end rule it’s the most serious error your remembering self can commit.
While the experiencing self is profligate (it throws almost everything away), the remembering self is remarkably error-prone—and it leads us to make the wrong decisions. Because of our remembering self’s miscalculations, we tend to prize brief, intense pleasures too highly and quiet, lasting, tranquil joys too little: bungee jumping instead of long hikes, thrilling one-night-stands instead of regular sex with your partner, attention-grabbing YouTube videos instead of a good book.
There is a whole genre of books on “extreme living.” Their authors are almost exclusively war reporters, extreme mountain climbers, start-up entrepreneurs or performance artists. They preach that life is too short for moderate pleasures. Only in extreme highs and lows can you really “feel” anything. A calm, unspectacular life is a failed life. These authors—and their readers—have fallen into the trap of the remembering self. Running barefoot across the USA or conquering Everest in record time can only be considered wonderful experiences in retrospect. At the time, they’re torture. Extreme sports feed memory at the cost of moment-by-moment happiness.
So which one matters, your experiencing self or your remembering self? Both, of course. Nobody wants to miss out on great memories. Yet we tend to overvalue the remembering self, living with one eye on the aggregation of future memories, instead of focusing on the present.
The Art of the Good Life