Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Our Two Selves: Experiencing and Remembering

     The past decade has witnessed an explosion of new ways to look at how we humans make decisions. These insights have sprouted from the fields of psychology, computational neuroscience and behavioral economics. The traditional model of how we choose centered around psychic conflict, warring parts of the mind, instinct versus reason, id against ego, unconscious motivations avoiding conscious recognition. Both Freud and Plato used allegories of mental conflict that depicted a battle between a horse and it's rider.

     The horse provides the locomotor energy, and the rider has the prerogative of determining the
     goal and of guiding the movements of his powerful mount towards it.  But all too often in the
     relations between the ego and the id we find a picture of the less ideal situation in which the
     rider is obliged to guide his horse in the direction in which it itself wants to go.
     Freud from New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

     The charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and one of the horses is noble and
     of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the
     driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome.
     Plato Phaedrus

     Both these thinkers paint a picture of human intellect or reason fighting forces within us that lead us astray. These unconscious agents distort our perception of "reality" and hide our true motivations. But there has always been an optimism about overcoming these influences through self-awareness and discipline.

     More recent work is less sanguine about even such basic things as our ability to know what makes us happy, or the capacity to store accurate memories of what we've experienced.

     Daniel Kahneman, who received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 for his work on decision making, has elegantly demonstrated how our brain is designed in such a way that we often cannot trust our preferences to reflect our interests. His work vividly shows how this is a consequence of having two mental operating systems, an experiencing self and a remembering self.

     The experiencing self is the you in the moment who lives through the event. The remembering self is the you that writes the history. It is also the remembering self that is consulted when planning the future. Choices are made based on the remembering self's construction of what happened in the past. Now here's the problem.  The experiencing self and the remembering self don't agree on what happened. In fact, Kahneman has shown that certain discrepancies are hard wired. Let's look at some examples.

     Subjects had a hand immersed in ice water at a temperature that causes moderate pain. They were told that they would have three trials. While the hand was in the water the other hand used a keyboard to continuously record their level of pain. The first trial lasted 60 seconds. The second trial lasted 90 seconds, however in the last 30 seconds the water was slowly warmed by 1 degree (better but still painful).  For the third trial, they were allowed to choose which of the first two trials was less disagreeable, and repeat that one.

     Here's what they found. Are you sitting down? 80% of the subjects who reported experiencing some decrease in their pain in the last 30 seconds of the second trial chose to repeat the 90 second experience! In other words, their remembering self selected the option that required an additional 30 seconds of suffering.

     What gives?

     Many similar experiments have revealed two rules that govern the remembering self's recording of an experience.
     1.Duration does not count.
     2. Only the peak (best or worst moment) and the end of the experience are registered.

     This has profound implications. For instance, should a doctor attempt to minimize a patient's memory of pain or experience of it?  A procedure's duration and anesthesia level would be addressed differently depending on the priority.

     It is only by confusing experience and memory that we believe experiences can be ruined. Kahneman speaks of "the tyranny of the remembering self" in the way it makes decisions.

   We seem to be in the business of creating memories, not experiences.

     I'll leave you with a question that will tell you something about your relationship with experience versus memory. You have a choice of two vacations. One is your fantasy of the perfect getaway. It could not be improved upon. The second is a typical good vacation. The only caveat is that if you choose to go on the dream vacation, you will have no memory of it.

     Your call.







Friday, December 2, 2011

The Trouble With Knowing Thyself

     In the August 2010 entry "A Hen Is Just An Egg's Way of Making Another Egg" we showed how the driving force behind natural selection is survival and reproduction, not truth, and gave several examples of deception in nature. Our evolutionary history has hardwired false belief systems that turn out to be an essential part of our nature.

     For example, it has been repeatedly proven that men overperceive the sexual interest and intent of women. The Darwinian rational for such a distortion is that the cost of this misbelief is much less detrimental to reproductive success than it's opposite, that is the man's sense that the woman is uninterested. For women, not surprisingly, the cost asymmetry is reversed. For a woman to falsely believe in a man's interest in familial investment is more detrimental because it will result in abandonment and therefore a lower chance of the offspring's survival. If she were wrong in this biased perception of a man's familial investment, it would merely delay reproduction, a much less costly error. Let the mating dance begin.

     Evolution has also crafted certain misbeliefs about ourselves. One particularly striking example is the "better than average effect". Most people judge themselves to be more intelligent, honest, original, friendly, and reliable than the average person. Drivers who have been hospitalized as a consequence of their poor driving, rate themselves as having better than average driving skills. My favorite example is that most people perceive themselves as less prone to such self-serving distortions than others.

     Traditional psychological theories have considered a close relationship with truth as an essential ingredient of mental health.  We're no longer so sure. In an amusing study, investigators assessed reality testing (how accurate one's observations are about oneself and the environment) in people on a spectrum of moods. The scale ran from clinically depressed, moderately depressed, normal mood, elevated mood, to manic. Surprisingly the moderately depressed won the contest, providing the most "accurate" responses. The normal mood group consistently demonstrated unrealistically positive evaluations of themselves and their loved ones, exaggerated perceptions of personal control or mastery, and unrealistic optimism about the future.

     These positive illusions are more accurately understood as design features of a normal mind rather than a brain function failure. In fact such positive misbeliefs are key to physical health as well. Unrealistically positive views about one's medical condition have been repeatedly linked to better outcomes than more accurate beliefs.

     One might wonder how we are so good at fooling ourselves.

     Because deceit is so fundamental in animal communication, there must be a strong selection to spot deception. This in turn led to a selection for self-deception, burying certain facts and motivations in the unconscious, so as to be the least obvious when our deception is being enacted. This protective failsafe- like system filters what we will allow ourselves to know.

     We know our neighbor better than ourselves.

In the next entry we'll take a look at some of the ways our memory distorts things and how that makes it difficult to know how to pursue happiness.