Christian Long

Daniel Kahneman: The Riddle of Memory vs. Experience

In TED Talks on April 12, 2010 at 10:58 pm

Reflection by ANGELA W.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Daniel Kahneman: The Riddle of Memory vs. Experience

Humans tend to base their happiness off the endings of their experiences, rather than the full experience itself.

Daniel Kahneman starts his TED talk by talking about happiness and the studies in that subject. Further into the talk he says “happiness is not the useful word anymore,” because we define happiness through our memories and not our experiences. Kahneman says we apply the word happiness to too many different things, which is the first trap to defining happiness.

The second trap in defining happiness is being happy in your life vs. being happy about the life you are living.

These two concepts are very different; being happy in your life means enjoying the experiences you have while being happy about your life refers to your thoughts and memories of those experiences. Kahneman says the third trap is the focusing illusion, meaning “you can’t think about any circumstances that affects well being without distorting its importance.” Memories are mostly based on the ending result. Kahneman makes a reference to a study on a colonoscopy. The study shows patient A’s colonoscopy to be a shorter amount of time than patient B. Even though patient A’s colonoscopy was shorter, his memory of it was much worse than patient B’s because patient A dealt with a greater amount of pain at the very end of his procedure. Because our memories are mostly based on the ending factor of our experience, we cannot think about how we really felt during the whole experience. As Kahneman said, “a story is made up of changes, significant moments and endings,” endings seem to have to most impact on stories due to recent studies.

Kahneman says we have a remembering-self and an experiencing-self. He says that our experiencing-self “lives life” and does not remember every moment we go through like our remembering-self wants to. Our remembering-self does not remember all of our experiences because our remembering-self just wants to attain a story, usually about 3 seconds long.

The main distinction between our remembering-self and our experiencing-self is time. Time has a much smaller impact on the memory the remembering-self makes than the experiencing-self goes through. As Kahneman refers to a week vacations compared to a two week vacation, he says if the second week of the two week vacation is just as good as the first week than our remembering-self does not see the two week vacation any better than the one week one. The remembering-self is also the one that makes decisions. Referring back to Kahneman’s first example about colonoscopies, if you had to choose which surgeon you would go back to for a colonoscopy, the remembering-self would choose the brighter memory. The brighter memory was patient B’s because the ending of his experience was not very painful.

The other difference between our two selves is that our experiencing-self does not get happier, our remembering-self does. The example Kahneman proposes is about a person’s process in moving to California from Ohio. The person would have thought that people are happier in California because the weather is not as bad as it is in Ohio. Once the person moves to California, they will think they are happier because they will remember the bad weather in Ohio.

I believe what Kahneman is saying is that even though we do not remember everything we experience, it is wonderful to experience things because what a person goes through in life shapes their character and defines who they are. He believes a person would much rather experience something while being happy and not remembering it than base the person’s happiness off of only their memories.


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