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.


  1. I saw the quote from The Medium is the Massage and thought my favourite blogger included a quote from Marshall McLuhan, whom I believe he detests, to elicit a response. I thought of a Steve Martin comedy routine in which Steve prepares a joke for his intended audience of sprinkler fitters "It says sprocket not socket" In order that we can truly understand The medium is the Massage we really need to listen to the audio recording that accompanies the book, several times in fact, I know it helped me a great deal.

    As a matter of course when I read the quote, I was forced to think of something so I thought of a book I just read, Victor E. Frankl's shameless self promotion, Man's Search For Meaning. A quote popped into my head from the book "Live as if you were already living for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!" It invites one to imagine the present is the past and that the past can be changed. I believe it is self evident that the quote didn't just pop, I was grasping at the flavour of the most recent past.

    Continuing the march backwards into the mirror we run into more quotes this time viral internet viralness from Commander Chris Hadfield on Reddit. "Don't let life randomly kick you into the adult you don't want to become" Commander Chris implies that we need to judge our current actions on expectations of future outcomes. Look forward into the rearview mirror and base your current action on what you hope to see there in the mirror.

    The only real paradox or ambiguity in Marshall's statement is "We" We tend, We look, We march. Who are We? Are they We? When did we become We? Is there anything we can do about being We? We are the medium, so we are the message and I think we would all benefit from a massage.

    1. Thanks for the YouTube link. Very hipster to use youtube to listen to audio recordings. meta-ironic.

      Your comments about "We" make me think of Cloud Atlas. I loved the book and the movie, and the message, which I take to be, we are all deeply connected, between people and across time. Beyond that I can't explain, other than to point you to the book and the movie.

      And generally, less talk, more massage is indeed the way to go.

    2. I should apologize for two things firstly my comment lost direction and sort of wrote itself. My intention was to disprove your post and prove that Marshall was the greatest philosopher ever. I failed, at least to disprove your post, the greatest philosopher ever is probably still debatable. Secondly I thought the Cloud Atlas reference was a trick to get me to read Ayn Rand, I forgot your more subtle than that.


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