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The Experiencing Self, or, Why Present-You Hates Past-You

January 24, 2014

 

Unlike Calvin here, most of us will probably never get the opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation between our current selves and our 6:30 selves, so to speak. That is a shame, because as Daniel Kahneman discusses in Thinking, Fast and Slow, the two of them don't necessarily know that much about each other.

 

In trying to understand how the brain registers emotion, Kahneman outlines the divide between what he calls the "experiencing self" and the "remembering self." The experiencing self, or "8:30 Calvin", if you will, is you in the present. All it knows is whether or not you are having a good time in the moment. The remembering self, or "6:30 Calvin", on the other hand, looks back and tries to to sum up your overall impressions of past events.

 

Which Calvin holds more sway in your judgements?  That prize goes to 6:30 Calvin. It makes a certain amount of sense. The trouble with living "in the now" is that every second is a different now. Your in-the-moment perceptions are in constant flux. Your remembering self, on the other hand, is a much more fixed point. Besides, the vast majority of the information in your head is not things you're discovering in the moment; but feelings and data you've gradually built up over your whole life.

 

Unfortunately, 6:30 Calvin doesn't always know what he's talking about.

 

In the past, we've discussed the peak-end rule, where our take-home memory of an event puts way too much weight on the most extreme moment, and also on whatever happened at the very end. (Every stage actor knows that you have to bring your A-game to the final scene.) Our most recent recollection can color the rest of our information to a hilarious degree. In one study, people were asked to judge their own life satisfaction. But first, they had to make a photocopy. Half the participants then "discovered" a carefully planted dime in the photocopy room. The simple minor victory of having just gained a free ten cents had a noticeable impact on how they assessed the overall happiness of their lives.

 

Then, there's duration neglect. 6:30 Calvin has no way to accurately record time.

 

To see these effects in action, we need look no further than Kahneman's "cold hand" study.

 

First, experimenters asked people to plunge their hand into very cold water for 60 seconds. As you might imagine, this is not the most pleasant activity. (From an experiment design setup, it's a good way to administer an easy-to-measure but harmless pain. From a "bored scientists hanging around the lab" setup, it's probably also a decent dare.)

 

The subjects were allowed to briefly warm and dry their hands with a towel, and to presumably take a moment to ponder the sacrifices we all make for scientific knowledge, and whether or not it's worth it to hurt yourself on purpose while some schmuck or schmuckette stands over you with a clipboard.

 

Then, it was back into the cold water. This time, the subjects got 60 seconds just as before, but immediately followed by 30 seconds in water that was exactly one degree warmer.

 

Told they had to undergo one more dunking, the subjects then had to decide: did they want to relive Option A or Option B?

 

Keep in mind: Option B is just Option A with 30 extra seconds of slightly less-painful pain. (A total of 90 seconds in cold water.) So surely it will come as no surprise to know that people overwhelmingly chose...Option B. They were swayed by the recollection of the pain lessening of the last 30 seconds.(hello, peak-end rule), and while each second in the cold water had probably felt like an eternity as it was happening, the remembering self couldn't make the distinction.

 

The remembering self doesn't care about 60 seconds vs 90 seconds. "What's the difference to me?" says the remembering self. "I'm talking to you from the past, and in the vast scheme of your life, 30 seconds are nothing." Sure, it means a little extra pain in the moment, but the remembering self doesn't worry about the moment. "Not my department," says the remembering self with a shrug, passing the buck in a scene familiar to anyone who's ever worked in a company with multiple employees. "It's someone else's problem."

 

Unfortunately for you, that "someone else" is...your experiencing self.

 

If you've read the classic Calvin and Hobbes strip above, you know that what follows is a whole lot of arguing. Just one more peril of time travel...

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