Untangling Kahneman's Two Selves

Daniel Kahneman died the week before last, on March 27, 2024, at the age of ninety.

If you don’t recognize that name, Kahneman was a giant in the study of human behavior, publishing hundreds of important studies and winning a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.

Much of our understanding of biases and decision-making comes from Daniel Kahneman and his research partner, Amos Tversky, who died of cancer in 1996.

To honor Daniel Kahneman’s enormous contributions to our knowledge of human nature, it seems fitting to explore one of his many important ideas, the two different selves that inhabit every one of us.

Let’s Start With An Experiment

Gather up some research subjects so we can subject them to some pain and discomfort! We are going to ask our victims to hold their hand in a bucket of ice water. The water temperature will be fourteen degrees Celsius, or about fifty-seven Fahrenheit—painful, but not intolerable.

Each subject will complete three trials. We will, of course, randomize the order, switch hands, and control variables carefully to ensure valid results.

  • Short Trial: Hold your hand in a bowl of cold water for sixty seconds. 
  • Long Trial: Hold your hand in a bowl of cold water for ninety seconds.
  • Third Trial: Repeat either trial. Your choice.

The Twist: Unbeknownst to the subject, during the long trial, a valve is opened at the sixty-second mark that warms the water by just one degree Celsius over the next thirty seconds.

The Big Reveal: There is no third trial! Once the subject has chosen whether they want to repeat the short or long trial, the experiment is over. It’s their choice we’re interested in.

The Results: Eighty percent of people will choose to repeat the second, longer trial.

Kahneman was fascinated by results like this, because they make no sense.

The first sixty seconds of each trial are identical. The last thirty seconds of the longer trial are still painful, just slightly less so.

Why on earth would people choose to tack on thirty seconds of additional, albeit slightly less intense, pain?

Kahneman proposed that human beings operate as if we had two separate selves: the experiencing self, and the remembering self.

Your Two Selves

The experiencing self is what you would get if you were to sum up a person’s moment-to-moment experience.

In the case of the cold hand experiment, you could ask the test subject to report their pain on a scale of one to ten every five seconds. If you plotted their pain levels over the full sixty or ninety seconds, the experiencing self is represented by the area under the curve, a measure of the total amount of pain experienced.

The area under the ninety second curve is obviously greater than that under the sixty-second curve, even if the numbers come down a bit in those last thirty seconds.

So Much For the “Rational Actor”

The area under the pain curve approach seems like a pretty rational way to evaluate our experience. Less total pain is preferable, and that is what the experiencing self would choose.

Unfortunately, humans are reliably irrational, and it is the remembering self, not the experiencing self, that calls the shots.

The remembering self is what you get when you ask the subject to reflect on their experience after the fact. What Kahneman, and many others since, found is that the remembering self is strongly influenced by two biases:

  • The Peak / End Rule: Our memory of events is predicted mostly by the peak intensity, either high or low, painful or pleasurable, and how the event ends.
  • Duration Neglect: The duration of the event has no impact whatsoever on our retrospective evaluation of the event.

The Peak / End Rule and Duration Neglect explain why people choose the longer cold hand trial: it is less painful at the end, and we disregard the overall duration.

This is not rational, but it is what we do. We confuse the memory of a thing with the thing itself, and our memory is biased.

How Can We Use This Information?

For Yourself

Be aware of the dominance and reliable unreliability of your remembering self. Stop confusing your memory of the thing with the thing itself.

Have you ever heard someone say something like, “the movie was great but a baby in the theater started screaming at the end and that ruined the whole thing.”

No, it didn’t.

That’s actually not possible. Your experience right up to the baby meltdown cannot be changed. What is ruined is your memory of the movie… if you allow it to be ruined.

You do not have to let your remembering self have its way. If you do, you will find yourself optimizing your future memories, not your future experiences.

Is that what you want?

With Others

Know that when you ask people—your employees, for example—to rate their experience, you are asking their remembering selves.

Their responses will mostly reflect their most intense feelings, the peaks, and how things went at the end. And unfortunately, peaks will more often be negative than positive, because negative experiences carry more emotional weight and thus are more easily remembered (yet another memory bias…).

You can overcome this, at least partially, by asking better questions.

Get details. Ask if that low was representative of their whole experience, or just an isolated incident. Ask people to recall what went well, and ask them to try to recall their experience at different time points.

This takes more cognitive effort, but it can be done if you take time to go deeper. You can also ask for feedback more frequently, which helps mitigate peak / end effects.

With a little effort, we can overcome what Daniel Kahneman referred to as “the tyranny of the remembering self.” Often, the result is that we realize things were actually better than we remembered.

Learning More

Our free resource, The Loom, is a curated repository of resources that we have found valuable, including a summary of Daniel Kahneman's best-selling book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

Sign up for a free account on Retexo.com for instant access, plus a free, 30-minute introductory executive coaching session!

Until next time,


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