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The Brain as a Kluge: How We Experience and Remember

It’s impossible to think about the past clearly. When it comes to evaluating your life, your brain is easily tricked into thinking one thing or another: How satisfied are you with your life? How happy are you? How well-off are you? Well, it depends.

In one study psychologists asked college students two questions: “How happy are you with your life in general?” and “How many dates did you have last month?” When asked in this order the researchers found almost no correlation. However, changing the order of the questions influenced the students to focus on the quality of their lives in terms of the quality of their romantic lives. The researchers found that people who had been on a lot of dates rated themselves as being much happier than those who had not been on a lot of dates. As brain scientist Gary Marcus explains, “this may not surprise you, but it ought to, because it highlights just how malleable our beliefs really are. Even our own internal sense of self can be influenced by what we happen to focus on at a given moment.”

Along similar lines, Norbert Schwarz and his colleagues demonstrated that good moods influenced how people evaluate their lives. They asked subjects to complete a questionnaire on life satisfaction. Beforehand, however, Schwartz asked them to photocopy a sheet of paper. (This was the key part of the study.) For half of the subjects Schwarz placed a dime on the photocopier. He and his colleagues found that, as one author says, “the minor lucky incident caused a marked improvement in subjects’ reported satisfaction with their life as a whole.”

Why are our life evaluations so easily swayed? Consider a study done by Daniel Kahneman and Donalnd Redelmeier. They tracked colonoscopy patients to see if there was a difference between how much pain they experienced and how much pain they thought they experienced. As Kahneman explains, “the experience of each patient varied considerably during the procedure, which lasted 8 minutes for patient A and 24 for patient B… [and] the general agreement [is] that patient B had the worse time.” Indeed, the graph illustrates that during the procedure patient B suffered more than patient A. However, they found that patient A reported that the colonoscopy was much worse than patient B. In other words, patient B suffered more but remembered it as better.

The inconsistency is explained by the peak-end rule, which describes our tendency to evaluate experiences by how they end, and duration neglect, which describes our tendency to be insensitive to the duration of an experience. Patient A remembered it as being terrible, even though he suffered less, because it ended terribly whereas Patient B remembered it better, even though he suffered more, because his second half was much less intense (see graph).

(The peak-end rule and duration neglect help explain why people tend to remember failed relationships or marriages only on bad terms – like a good movie with a bad ending, it’s just so hard to judge a relationship without thinking about what happened at the end. Perhaps the most dramatic example of these two cognitive biases is childbirth – extremely painful for most of the time but a great ending seems to dispel this from memory.)

Kahneman and Redelmeier’a ultimate point is that when it comes to understanding happiness psychologists must distinguish between the “remembering self” and the “experiencing self.” The remembering self is the one that “keeps score,” it answers questions like, “How satisfied are you with your life,” or “How is your health.” It is a story teller and its primary job is to tell the story of your life. The experiencing self answers questions like, “How was the concert last night,” or “How was your birthday party.” It is your current mood and reports how you are in the present. This distinction brings me back to my original question: Why are our life evaluations so easily swayed?

When it comes to assessing our life, the remembering self and the experiencing self are not on the same page. The remembering self, for example, will report a satisfied life but it will also be influenced by your experiencing self, which is moreover influenced by everyday occurrences like, say, finding a dime on a photocopier or answering your friend when he asks about your romantic life. Daniel Kahneman puts it this way: “Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.” In other words, our brain is a kluge – an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose – and thinking about the past with an objective lens is not a top priority.

  • I humbly stole the word kluge from Gary Marcus’ wonderful book of the same name
6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kahneman did a TED talk on this subject in Feb 2010, and used the colonoscopy example.

    I happened to watch it yesterday.

    December 13, 2011
  2. A super interesting post! Thanks!

    December 13, 2011
  3. jean jules #

    One more reason we are humans and not machines!!! Imagine the boredom, the simplicity, the lack of color, that would be experienced had we been able to behave exactly like a stupid computer upon commands!! A computer never ceases to respond to the same commands over and over again and I am pretty sure that must be pretty boring. Luckily, our flexibility saves us from having to put up with the same thing.

    March 27, 2012
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