Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and probably one of the most influential thinkers alive in the world today, has recent research that focuses on the disconnect between what he calls the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self”. The “experiencing self” is the part of you that goes around, living your day-to-day life, while the “remembering self” is the one who then answers the question “how was your day?” Kahneman’s research finds that the way we perceive (and enjoy) events as they are happening is fundamentally different from the way we remember them after the fact.
In a good example of this, he has an experiment where individuals put their hands in cold water for a minute. In one trial, they stop there, and remove their hands from the water. In another, they first put their hands in the same cold water for a minute, but then for the second minute, the water becomes slightly warmer, but still cold and unpleasant. He then tells them they are going to re-experience one of the two trials, but they get to pick which they would prefer. Most people pick the second one. Even though they are exposed to the unpleasant first minute AND the (slightly less) unpleasant second minute, they choose the second; since it had a better ending they remember it better, even though it was unambiguously worse for the “experiencing self.”
Kahneman argues that a lot of our day-to-day decision-making follows this same logic. People make a lot of choices in order to “create memories”, rather than focus on what they actually enjoy as they are experiencing it. For instance, when someone gets to the top of a mountain and immediately starts snapping pictures rather than simply experiencing the view is acting out of interest for the remembering self.
To gauge the extent to which YOU are guilty of this, consider the following: suppose you are about to undergo a painful operation. So painful that you will be screaming throughout, asking for it to stop. However, after the fact, you will have NO memory of it. How much would you be willing to pay to prevent this? (Seriously, stop and think about it.) For most people, it’s a fairly small amount, as though they themselves are a stranger whose well-being they care very little about.
All of this to say, I just had a weekend that was unambiguously great for my remembering self, but parts of it were perhaps a little less pleasant for my experiencing self. I went to my friends’ house for a barbecue. The problem was they live on a long, beat up dirt road, and it had been pouring. As a result, the road was barely navigable. On my way there, a friend and I spun out and got stuck in ditches twice. We were about ready to abandon our car and walk the rest of the way, but eventually navigated our way out and made it there.
Fast-forward a few hours, and I am at the house with some other people, content, full and happy to not go anywhere. However, we got a call that another group of friend on their way had gotten stuck. Two people volunteered to go, and then determined that they needed a third. The “experiencing me” would have almost certainly rather stayed in the warmth and comfort of the home, and sat that one out. But inevitably, the remembering self won out, and I figured that it would be an adventure.
We got there, and discovered that another friend (one of the hosts) had stopped to try and help them, and had gotten stuck as well. (Telling you, this road was terrible). We decided that the best game plan was to try and push the cars as they revved their engines and tried to get up out of the ditches they were stuck in. It was so slippery that I couldn’t get any traction with my shoes, so I went barefoot. Doing so, I realized I was probably living up to every one of my friends back home in the States’ stereotype of the sort of experience “Nate is off having in Africa.”
In the end, we managed to get them out (my experiencing, and remembering self’s account of the trip was marred a bit by the fact that I stepped on a pretty enormous thorn; not sure now how I’m going to train this week for the half-marathon I just signed up for, OOOOPS) but regardless of how absurd and muddy and wet it might have been at the time, I think it makes for a pretty good story: the time I pushed cars out of a ditch on a dirt road in Nanyuki. Score one for the remembering self, even if it might have come at the expense of the time (and foot) of the experiencing self.