Biased toward periods of short, intense joy

Biased Toward Periods of Short, Intense Joy

In Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman writes, “The rules that govern the evaluation of the past are poor guides for decision making, because time does matter. The central fact of our existence is that time is the ultimate finite resource, but the remembering self ignores that reality. The neglect of duration combined with the peak-end rule causes a bias that favors a short period of intense joy over a long period of moderate happiness.”

 

When we think back on a vacation, we remember the beautiful waterfall that we saw, but we forget just how long and awful the drive and steep hike to the waterfall was. When we think about the work we want to do, we remember the highlights of any job experience, and we forget the hours of drudgery that may have gone with the job. We forget time when we think back on what has been positive and what has been negative in our lives, and this gives us a false sense of happiness and a false sense of what we actually enjoy, leading us to make biased decisions for the future.

 

There is research which shows that lengthy commutes and time spent in isolation are among the things that make us the most depressed and least happy. However, because of duration neglect, we don’t remember just how awful these things make us feel when we think about taking a new job or moving to a new house that is relatively far away from friends, work, and family. We put ourselves in situations that make us unhappy because they have the potential to bring us short bursts of joy that will stand out in our memory.

 

I think it is very troubling that a moderate level of happiness will become our background and will fade in our memories. The experiencing self can be quite content moment to moment, but the remembering self will seek out periods of intense joy, even at great costs to the experiencing self. This disconnect can lead people to behaviors and situations that seem like obvious miscalculations from the outside.

 

This seems to be part of what is at play when a man who is in a happy but unexciting marriage has an affair. I recognize that there are many factors at play, but part of the decision-making process can probably be explained by the brain seeking a short period of intense joy via an affair over the continued moderate happiness of a stable but somewhat boring marriage.

 

Our tendency toward short periods of intense joy is also probably a major factor in our decisions to make many of the purchases that we make. The instant we buy something we are happy, but ahead of our purchase we don’t think about all the time we have to invest in the the thing we buy, whether it is a car that needs maintenance, Christmas lights and decorations that we have to put up, take down, and box up for storage, or a fish tank that is going to require ongoing cleaning and maintenance on a regular basis.  Our decision making is influenced by how we remember the past, and those memories forget time. They also discount moderate happiness in favor of intense joy, even if the intense joy is fleeting and doesn’t actually contribute to a happy and meaningful life as much as our base level of moderate happiness would.
The Remembering Self and Time - Joe Abittan

The Remembering Self and Time

Time, as we have known it, has only been with human beings for a small slice of human history. The story of time zones is fascinating, and really began once rail roads connected the United States. Before we had a standardized system for operating within time, human lives were ruled by the cycle of the sun and the seasons, not by the hands of a watch. This is important because it suggests that the time bounds we put on our lives, the hours of our schedules and work days, and the way we think about the time duration of meetings, movies, a good night’s sleep, and flights is not something our species truly evolved to operate within.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shows one of the consequences of human history being out of sync with modern time. “The mind,” he writes, “is good with stories, but it does not appear to be well designed for the processing of time.”

 

I would argue that this makes sense and should be expected. Before we worked set schedules defined by the clock, before we could synchronize the start of a football game with TV broadcasts across the world, and before we all needed to be at the same place at precisely the right time to catch a departing train, time wasn’t very important. It was easy to tie time with sunrise, sunset, or mid-day compared to a 3:15 departure or a 7:05 kick-off. The passage of time also didn’t matter that much. The difference between being 64 and 65 years old wasn’t a big deal for humans that didn’t receive retirement benefits and social security payments. We did not evolve to live in a world where every minute of every day was tightly controlled by time and where the passage of time was tied so specifically to events in our lives.

 

For me, and I think for Daniel Kahneman, this may explain why we see some of the cognitive errors we make when we remember events from our past. Time wasn’t as important of a factor for ancient humans as story telling was. Kahneman continues,

 

“The remembering self, as I have described it, also tells stories and makes choices, and neither the stories nor the choices properly represent time. In storytelling mode, an episode is represented by a few critical moments, especially the beginning, the peak, and the end. Duration is neglected.”

 

When we think back on our lives, on moments that meant a lot to us, on times we want to relive, or on experiences we want to avoid in the future, we remember the salient details. We don’t necessarily remember how long everything lasted. My high school basketball days are not remembered by the hours spent running UCLAs, by the number of Saturdays I had to be up early for 8 a.m. practices, or by the hours spent in drills. My memories are made up of a few standout plays, games, and memorable team moments. The same is true for my college undergrad memories, the half-marathons I have raced, and my memories from previous homes I have lived in.

 

When we think about our lives we are not good at thinking about the passage of time, about how long we spent working on something, how long we had to endure difficulties, or how long the best parts of our lives lasted. We live with snapshots that can represent entire years or decades. Our remembering self drops the less meaningful parts of experiences from our memories, and holds onto the start, the end, and the best or worst moments from an experience. It distorts our understanding of our own history, and creates memories devoid of a sense of time or duration.

 

I think about this a lot because our minds and our memories are the things that drive how we behave and how we understand the present moment. However, duration neglect helps us see that reality of our lives is shaped by unreality. We are influenced by cognitive errors and biases, by poor memories, and distortions of time and experience. It is important to recognize how faulty our thinking can be, so we can develop systems, structures, and ways of thinking that don’t assume we are always correct, but help guide us toward better and more realistic ways of understanding the world.
Duration Neglect

Duration Neglect

My last post was about the Peak-End Rule, the way our brains remember events where we subjectively rate them based on an average between the peak moment and the end. A great experience can be ruined by a poor ending, while a poor experience can be remember more positively if it ends on a high note. Duration Neglect goes along with the Peak-End Rule to shape the way we subjectively remember an experience that doesn’t necessarily align with our actual experience of the event in the moment.

 

Regarding an experiment with individuals rating painful colonoscopies, Kahneman writes, “the duration of the procedure had no effect whatsoever on the ratings of total pain.”

 

Again, what mattered for individuals is the peak level of pain and the pain they experienced at the end of the procedure. Patients who had a short colonoscopy with a painful ending rated the entire experience as more painful than individuals who had an equal peak in pain, but overall had a longer colonoscopy that ended on a less painful note. If two patients experience the same peak of pain, but one experiences it early rather than at the end, the subjective pain ratings will be skewed, even if the person who had the peak at the end had less total pain because their procedure was shorter.

 

What this means for gastroenterologists is that it is better for the procedure to go long than to be painful. We can tolerate pain as long as it is spaced out and as long as the ending is relatively better than the peak. A procedure that lasts 20 minutes with an average pain level of 4 is better than a 5 minute procedure with an average pain level of 6. The mind doesn’t remember how long the pain lasted, it only remembers how bad the pain was at the peak.

 

We can translate this into our daily lives as well. If we know there is going to be something unpleasant, then we can try to space it out and frontload the unpleasantness, knowing that the ending will lift the overall subjective feeling if it is relatively better. And, if we have something that is really positive, we can see that it is truly is better to leave on a high note. Once we reach a peak in terms of positivity, any additional goodness will only diminish the overall rating of people’s experience. Adding more positive notes that don’t quite match the peak doesn’t actually help improve the overall level that people will ascribe to the event when they think back on it.