Mar 14, 2013

Not Much Talk Among Our Selves

long minute short day

The paradox of experience

Final exams, a job interview, a marathon, ...youth. At the time, each minute was an excruciating eternity; yet looking back, the entire experience seems to have passed in an instant. This is the paradox of experience: the moments are longer than the spans of time that contain them. The phenomenon is very like Zeno's paradox of the arrow.

Kahneman resolves the paradox by positing that we are composed of two psychological 'selves': an experiencing self and a remembering self. And there's not much talking amongst our selves.

Kahneman and his research collaborators demonstrated this in a simple experiment: First, subjects were asked to place their hand in painfully cold water for 30s. Then, after a period to return to normal, the subjects were asked to repeat the procedure, except in this second case, they were asked to keep their hands in the water for 30s longer, during the last 15 seconds of which the water was warmed to a less cold temperature. In the first experience, subjects had their hand in painfully cold water for 30s; in the second, for a 45s. When asked which experience they preferred to repeat, subjects chose the second.

This and other experiments (including gripping studies of the colonoscopy experience) show that:
  • the experience we remember is different than than the experience in the moment, and 
  • our choices are determined by our remembering self.

Backwards into the future

Would you choose to live in paradise for a year if you knew you would have no memory of it when you returned?

Our memories shape our expectations which direct our choices. But our memories do not accurately reflect the reality of our in-in-the-moment experiences. This may explain why people don't enjoy family holidays as much as they expected. The happy memories constructed from christmas trees, festive songs, and smiley photos obscure the family arguments and tears at dinner.
“The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” Marshall McLuhan.

Design for memory

These findings about experience have relevance for designers. Kahneman has shown that our memory of an experience is determined by:

  • the intensity of the single most positive or negative moment of the experience, and 
  • the quality of the end of the experience, positive or negative. 

The duration of an experience is not significant to our recollection of it. Designers intending to evoke a desire for repeated experience should me mindful of the mechanics of memory. They should ensure there is:
  • one outstanding positive moment during the experience of the product
  • a subjectively positive conclusion to the experience of the product.


If your interests extend to theory and philosophy, please check out my other blog.