I’ve just finished Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which everybody needs to read. One of the useful concepts that he analyzes, which I believe I first heard from Dan Ariely, is the distinction between the remembering self and the experiencing self.
Following Kahneman’s presentation, think for a moment about where you would go on vacation if you could leave right now and money were no object. Why would you go there?
What comes to my mind is a hike along the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland. It’s been a few years since I’ve done any serious backpacking, so I suppose that I’m itching for a bit of challenge.
Now another question: where would you go if you could leave right now, money were no object, but your memory of the vacation would be erased when you returned?
I’m guessing that your choice under these circumstances is far more simply hedonistic – I’m inclined to choose some tropical beach destination.
According to Kahneman and others, this disparity reflects a difference in our preferences between a here-and-now preferrer — the experiencing self — that wants this pleasure to continue and this pain to cease, and a storyteller — the remembering self — that looks at an experience as a whole and evaluates its worth, with special attention paid to the beginning, climax and ending.
The difference between the two gets even more obvious (and creepy) when we consider suffering.
During a painful medical procedure, a patient is asked at regular intervals (say, every few minutes) to rate their pain level on a scale of 0 to 5. Then, afterward, they are asked to rate the painfulness of the procedure as a whole. [Note: I am making up these numbers, but they conform to the general pattern observed in actual experiments.]
Which of these people gives a higher pain-rating for the experience as a whole?
Well, the naïve answer is that Person A experienced more moments of pain, of greater intensity than Person B, so it stands to reason that they will rate the experience as a whole as worse. Readers with calculus could even say that the “suffering under the curve” is higher for Person A.
And yet, in such situations, Person B consistently rates their experience as worse — mainly because it ends on a bad note. Duration is totally neglected. “Total suffering” is thus not simply an integral of moment-to-moment suffering - or at least it’s not reported in that way. As Dan Ariely has noted, this helps explain the commonplace fact that most of us actually prefer to have a band-aid slowly peeled off, rather than “getting it over with.” Our remembering selves see the former as a less bad experience, even as our experiencing selves suffer for twice as long with pain that is not much less.
The creepy comes in when people are asked whether it would be acceptable to them to have an operation without anesthetic, so long as they do not remember it. According to Kahneman, many people (including himself) are all right with that, showing extreme callousness toward their experiencing selves! (I happen to lack whatever intuition is driving this phenomenon — I’m quite protective of my experiencing self.)
Of course, the remembering self is not always cast as the bad guy. I suspect most of us will have had the odd day on which all of our considered plans were dropped because of some hedonistic distraction — say, watching an entire season of Game of Thrones in one’s housecoat while wolfing down snacks (speaking purely hypothetically, of course). Here the experiencing self has triumphed over the remembering self. (Incidentally, there is interesting philosophical work here in figuring out the relationship of the remembering vs. experiencing selves to eudaimonia vs. akrasia.)
So far, this article has been a mere rehash of some cognitive psychology results. I want to start exploring the broader implications of this distinction. One of the areas that it seems worth applying to is ethical philosophy; specifically the contrast between virtue ethical and consequentialist strains of thought.
For virtue ethics, the point of morality is to help you to be a better, happier person. Here, happiness is emphatically not understood in the popular modern way as a mere persistent good mood. On the contrary, happiness (or eudaimonia) involves living an ethically good life, with close ties to friends and family, and strong community involvement. A lifetime of good deeds and fine company could be undone by your child’s turning out to be a villain, even if it were not your fault — hence, Solon says “call no man happy until he is dead.”
Meanwhile, consequentialism (particularly its subspecies, utilitarianism) seeks to maximize welfare or utility across all beings. In utilitarianism this gets defined as the balance of pleasure over pain, or some such concept. The definition of utility is always vexatious, but needn’t concern us overmuch here — the point is that almost all plausible consequentialist theories care quite a lot about moment-to-moment mental states like pleasure and pain.
I suspect you may be able to see where I am going with this. Virtue ethics is speaking directly and pretty much exclusively to the remembering self, while utilitarianism is much more friendly to the experiencing self. Is this a defect in one, or in both of these theories?
My tentative answer is that I am sympathetic to virtue ethics’ regard for the ethically substantial dimensions of human happiness — it stands in flattering contrast to the shallowness of popular culture’s “whatever makes you happy” nostrums.
And yet I am also skeptical about the normative importance of the kind of factors that people focus on when they discuss the “good life.” Recall Solon’s quote above — “call no man happy until he is dead.” To anybody with utilitarian leanings, this sounds pretty absurd. In the drama ‘House, MD,’ a character gives up a virtuoso career that is making her miserable. When a doctor asks her whether she’ll feel regret on her deathbed, she replies “You're going to spend one day of your life on your deathbed; the other 25,000 are the ones we should be worrying about.” Surely there is also something right about this!
Now we change the subject to a new econometrics fad: happiness measurement. This new trend has been dogged with controversy since the beginning. Some months ago, Massimo, myself and a couple of others had a conversation about it, in which I defended the idea as a worthwhile metric, on the grounds that it’s good to know how human misery and satisfaction correlate with other things, while Massimo expressed strong skepticism. Our positions then matched up fairly well with those of Julian Baggini (Massimo) and Richard Layard (your correspondent) in this debate on the subject.
I still think Baggini and Massimo’s fears about totalitarian abuses of the happiness metric are pretty histrionic, but I’m willing to eat a little bit of crow: they have a very good point about how problematic and philosophically indeterminate the measurement itself is. The UK asks the question in terms of “satisfaction with your life overall.” Massimo and Baggini’s point, I think, was that to move from this rating to a judgment of whether people are living good lives or not is an immense exercise in philosophical hand-waving. A person could be very satisfied but living a bad life in an ethical sense, or vice versa.
Now we can add to that worry an additional one — what about the poor, neglected experiencing self?
By tailoring the question exclusively to the remembering self (“satisfaction with your life overall”), the census-takers guarantee the result to be influenced by an inner narrative of respondents’ lives, rather than by any actually experienced mental state. For example, one can imagine someone who is altogether miserable moment-to-moment (say, a mother of 10 with an unsupportive husband), but has so internalized cultural norms of motherhood as the be-all-end-all of happiness, that she reports strong life satisfaction — every item on her “good life” checklist is checked off!
Also of particular interest is the relation of happiness to income, and a very famous result shows that this relation is linear at first, then plateaus; in other words, poor people report being unhappy, middle-income people are happier than poor people, but rich people are only a tiny bit happier than middle-income people. This does not merely reflect diminishing marginal utility of money — the curve is flatter than that consideration alone would lead us to expect.
However, here we have a similar problem. We are asking the remembering self, not the experiencing self, about “overall life satisfaction.” The remembering self reports its level of happiness based on a narrative of life so far (“Well, I’ve got a house, kids, a good job…”). But the trouble is that a salary of $100,000 as opposed to $200,000 doesn’t fit well into a narrative, so it probably gets neglected. We still need to know whether a year in the life of a rich person contains more pleasurable person-moments than a year in the life of a middle-income or poor person.
Accordingly, I propose this as a useful experiment: use the standard experienced-happiness test of giving people pagers set to go off at random intervals. When they go off, the respondents note their mental state and report it shortly thereafter. Apply this experimental procedure to income levels. I (falsifiably) predict that the correlation between income and happiness will get stronger, though there is probably still a plateau (money really does have diminishing marginal utility).
And perhaps this type of happiness measurement should also be used in addition to, or in replacement of, national happiness measurements such as the one mentioned above. Certainly, it has a claim to be more objective than “life satisfaction,” inasmuch as it asks people about their mental states at the time, rather than the former, much more narrative-dependent question.
I acknowledge that this post is somewhat inchoate; in my defense, I mean it more as a call to conversation than as a well-ordered thesis. Can you think of any other relevant applications of the remembering self / experiencing self distinction? Do you think it’s overblown? What are your feelings on my tentative conclusions?