Our two selves; how our past-self interferes with our present decisions

two selves

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize-winning founder of behavioral economics is famous for his profound research on the two human selves. The experiencing-self and the remembering-self. The "experiencing-self",  is the present you, the one that lives through events. The "remembering-self", is the past you, the one that writes your story. Kahneman's research poses a very intriguing question; are we capturing memories or, are we designing them?

Think about Instagram. The highly popular app allows us to post beautifully enhanced photos of our, "happiest" moments. But, what if our habitual, photo uploading impacts more than just our Instagram feeds? What if our Instagram habits make us architects of our future memories? Well, according to Kahneman's widely accepted research, this is true. We remember memories, not for their fact, but for the way we told ourselves the story.

The problems with our two selves

What exactly are the consequences of having two, contrary, mental operating systems? Kahneman identified one, big problem. He found that, due to certain hard-wired biases, impacting our recording of memories, our two selves typically disagree on perceptions of past experiences.

It appears that our experience can become so confused by our memory, that we create something of a fabricated past experience, with sprinkles of the truth. This is problematic because our past experiences have a huge influence on our present decision making.

Experiencing vs. remembering - what we need to know about our two selves

Kahneman's research identified common factors governing the remembering self's recording of an experience.

1. The remembering self is a storyteller

What defines a story is intense, significant moments and endings. Endings are very, very important,” says Kahneman. The last part of an experience is the most memorable part. We can have an amazing vacation but if at the end, our luggage is lost, then that can taint our memory of the experience. We can't change the way we record information but we can be self-aware and rationalize our perceptions. Try not to attach too much weight to endings, especially if such memories are being used to influence present decisions.

2. We have a natural disposition to remember negative events

We are far more likely to remember intense, negative moments, than other types of moments. For example, when we think about a past job or marriage, we can taint the entire experience as negative, based on a few intense, profound moments, and forget all of the time in between.

Whilst this hard-wiring was useful when we were hunter-gathers and needed to remember signals of danger, it is limiting for us in the modern world. It's important to view past experiences as a timeline. This will encourage us to decide, on balance, whether an experience was negative and how much so, by comparing the negative moments to the remaining moments in the timeline. Ask yourself, are you being influenced by a few intense moments and perhaps forgetting the whole picture?

3. There is no duration to our memories

What does this mean? It means, in simple terms, that we don't remember durations but just the memories themselves. For example, as discussed above, even if we've had years of happy memories, we are likely to only remember the fewer negative moments. The more intense or exciting the memory, the longer we remember it to be. Experiences with more changes are more likely to be recorded as longer than a memory with routines or patterns. This is why we struggle to remember individual days at school but our summers as a child, seem to last forever.


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