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.
Instagram Vacations - Joe Abittan

Instagram Vacations

An important goal of our vacations these days is to take pictures of the unique, interesting, and memorable experiences of our trip. We will go out of our way to get the perfect picture, whether it is with a celebrity, atop a waterfall, or with a plate of food at a busy restaurant where we had to wait an hour for a table. The actual experience of getting to the point where we can take our famed picture may require a long wait in a cold line, a difficult hike up a steep mountain, or a boring car ride for miles to get to a random yet delicious dinner in the middle of no where. We put ourselves through unpleasant experiences while on vacation because the remembering self wants a story to tell about the trip we took.

 

Getting back to the office, returning to school, or catching up with family after our trip is where the remembering self will be in action. Telling our friends and family that we went to the same beach as last year, sat on the shore, read, and didn’t do anything novel or exciting will make the whole vacation feel less meaningful. Perhaps we really just need a boring and relaxing break, but the remembering self doesn’t want us to have a forgettable experience.

 

So instead of the boring and uninspiring vacation where we caught up on sleep and enjoyed lounging around eating simple food, we set out for the perfect Instagram vacation. We relentlessly photograph all the interesting things we do, the famous people we can pose next to for 2 seconds, and the tasty food we eat. We give up a little of the present moment experience in order to capture a picture that we likely won’t spend much time looking at in the future. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “The photographer does not view the scene as a moment to be savored, but as a future memory to be designed.”

 

Instead of taking vacations to get away, relax, and relieve stress, we plan vacations to give us the best possible memories. “In many cases,” Kahneman writes, “we evaluate touristic vacations by the story and the memories that we expect to store.” In his book Kahneman shares research to suggest that students misremember how enjoyable a vacation was when it didn’t have unique and memorable experiences. They become less likely to say they would repeat the trip if it was enjoyable but not unique.

 

This ties in with ideas from Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brian. Hanson would argue that vacations are not about relaxing and taking time away from work or school. He would go further than Kahneman and say that vacations are not about memories but are instead about showing off our wealth, our connections, and how interesting we are by traveling to unique places. We pick memorable vacations because the remembering self wants to craft an interesting story about who we are and the trips we take. We want to signal something to the people around us. We want to impress them, and a boring vacation at the same beach as last year just won’t cut it, even if we would enjoy it more in the moment.
We Care About Narratives

We Care About Narratives

I have written a lot about narratives in the last few months. We understand the world via narratives. Scientific discoveries, economic measurements, facts, and statistics don’t mean anything to us in isolation and are not understood by our brains in isolation. Everything that we observe and experience is incorporated into a story, and we care about the narratives that we create.

 

The way we think about ourselves and others is understood through these narratives. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow looks at the ways we think about narratives, and how our narratives influence our thoughts, our behaviors and decisions, and the lenses through which we interpret the world. He writes, “we all care intensely for the narrative of our own life and very much want it to be a good story, with a decent hero.” We do things to improve our narrative, we work hard to give ourselves a good ending, and we create ideas within the relationships and frames of our lives that give us meaning and purpose for what we do and who we are.

 

From this narrative understanding of the world come two interesting observations from Kahneman that I want to highlight. One is duration neglect, the other is caring for people via caring for their story.

 

“Duration neglect is normal in a story,” writes Kahneman, “and the ending often defines its character.”

 

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the 23 Marvel movies that are out now), Iron Man is one of the most important characters. He has a huge character arc across the movies, developing from a spoiled billionaire playboy to the sacrificial hero at the end. And it is the ending that defines Tony Stark more than almost anything else across the movies. We forget that many of the villains across the entire saga are a creation of his own hubris, his own short-sightedness, and his own ego. We discount the times he fell short, because in the end he is the hero who saves the universe. Duration neglect kicks in, and we understand Tony by the end of his narrative, a bittersweet goodbye to the Iron Man hero who kicked off the whole movie phenomenon.

 

Of course a comic book movie series exaggerates our relationships to narratives and life. Iron Man and the rest of the characters are larger than life, but nevertheless, they do give us a window to understand how we understand the real world. You want the lives of those around you to end peacefully and you want people to feel fulfilled. You feel sad for the person who died young, before a wedding or before the birth of a child. It doesn’t matter how happy their life was overall, you want their narrative to have the Tony Stark arc, you wanted their narrative to be complete with a perfect ending.

 

And this brings us to the second idea from Kahneman, “caring for people often takes the form of concern for the quality of their stories, not for their feelings.” Stories where someone’s life ends before they could fulfill themselves feel hollow. We understand other people by understanding their story. We rarely think of someone as a generally happy or generally sad person without considering whether their life and their story has been good or bad. We judge the stories of others, and have trouble understanding how someone who is famous, rich, or seems to have a great career could be sad and empty. At the same time, we don’t understand how someone in poverty with few close family members could find happiness. We focus on changing the stories of others, rather than on helping them be happy.

 

We care about narratives and want stories to end well, want people to find meaning in their narratives, and understand and interact with people based on the narratives we tell ourselves and the narratives people present to us. Development, time, and individual events mean little compared to the grand arc of a narrative and how it comes to a close. When we help others and try to support them, we are often doing so in a way that is meant to boost both of our narratives.
Experiencing Versus Remembering

Experiencing Versus Remembering

My last two posts have been about the difference in how we experience life and how we remember what happens in our life. This is an important idea in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman explains the ways in which our minds make predictable errors when thinking statistically, when trying to remember the past, and when making judgements about reality. Kahneman describes our mind as having two selves. He writes,

 

“The experiencing self is the one that answers the question: Does it hurt now? The remembering self is the one that answers the question: How was it on the whole? Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.”

 

In my post about the Peak-End Rule I highlighted findings from Kahneman that show that the remembering self isn’t very good at making accurate judgments about a whole experience. It more or less averages out the best (or worst) part of an experience with the ending of the experience. The ups and downs throughout, the actual average quality overall, isn’t that relevant to the way we think back on an experience.

 

Duration Neglect also demonstrates how the remembering self misjudges our experiences. A long monotonous experience with a positive ending can be remembered much more fondly than a generally positive short experience with a bad ending.

 

When I think about the experiencing and remembering self, I try to remember that my remembering self is not able to perfectly recall the reality of my experiences. I try to remember that my experiencing self is only alive in the present moment, and when I am experiencing something great, I try hard to focus on that moment, rather than try to focus on something I want to remember (this is the difference between sitting and watching a beautiful sunset versus trying to capture the perfect picture of the sunset for social media). Keeping in mind the distinctions between the experiencing and remembering self is helpful for avoiding the frustration, guilt, and pressure that the remembering self heaps on you when you don’t feel as though you have done enough or accomplished enough. The remembering self is only one part of you, and its revisionist view of your history isn’t real. There is real value in finding a balance between living for the experiencing self and living with the knowledge of what fuels the remembering self. Tilting too far either way can make us feel frustrated and overwhelmed, or unaccomplished, and we all want to be somewhere between the two extremes, giving up a little to prop up the other in different ways at different times of our lives.
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.
The Peak-End Rule - Joe Abittan

The Peak-End Rule

Our experiencing self and our remembering self are not the same person. Daniel Kahneman shows this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow by gathering survey information from people during unpleasant events and then asking them to recall their subjective experience of the event later. The experiencing self and the remembering self rate the experiences differently.

 

We can see this in our own lives. During the day you may have had a frustrating project to work on, but when you lay down at night and reflect on the day, you might not remember the project being as bad as it felt in the moment. Alternatively, you might sit around all day binging a TV series and really enjoy a lazy relaxing day. However, you might remember the day much differently when you look back at it, no longer appreciating the experience but regretting it.

 

With our brain experiencing and remembering events differently, we are set up for some strange cognitive biases when we reflect on past events and think about how we should behave in the future. The Peak-End Rule is one bias that factors into how we remember events and can influence our future choices.

 

You might expect to rate a poor experience based on how bad the worst moment of the experience was. Say you had to go to a child’s gymnastics routine that you were really dreading. A certain part of the routine may have been all but unbearable to you, but if at the end you found a $20 bill on your way back to the car. Your judgement of the event is going to be influenced by your good luck. Rather than basing your judgement of the show purely on that dreadful routine, or on an average of the whole evening, you are going to find a spot somewhere between the worst moment and the happy moment when you found $20. Its not an average of the whole time, and its not really indicative of your actual experience. A random factor at the end shifted your perspective.

 

In his book Kahneman writes about the Peak-End Rule as “The global retrospective rating predicted by the average of the level of pain reported at the worst moment of the experience and at its end.” This definition from Kahneman comes after describing a study with participants sticking their hands in icy cold water and subjectively judging the experience later.

 

The peak-end rule is not limited to painful and unpleasant experiences. Instead of a miserable experience, you could have a truly wonderful experience that ends up being remembered somewhat poorly by a momentary blip at the end. Picture a concert that is great, but flops at the end with the speaker system failing. You won’t reflect back on the entirety of the experience as positively as you should simply because a single song at the end was ruined.

 

What we should remember from this is that endings matter a lot. Don’t end your meeting with the bad news, end it with the good news so that people walk out on a positive note. The ending of an experience weighs much more heavily than everything in the middle. The points that matter are the peak (either the best or worst part) and the ending. A great ending can buoy a poor experience while a bad ending can tank a great experience. For company meetings, job interviews, or performances, make sure you bring the ending to a high point to lift the overall level of the subjective experience.
Why Terrorism Works

Why Terrorism Works

In the wake of terrorism attacks, deadly shootings, or bizarre accidents I often find myself trying to talk down the threat and trying to act as if my daily life shouldn’t be changed. I live in Reno, NV, and my city has experienced school shootings while my state experienced the worst mass shooting in the United States, but I personally have never been close to any of these extreme yet rare events.  Nevertheless, despite efforts to talk down any risk, I do psychologically notice the fear that I feel following such events.

 

This fear is part of why terrorism works. Despite trying to rationally and logically talk myself through the post-terrorism incident and remind myself that I am in more danger on the freeway than I am near a school or at a concert, there is still some apprehension under the surface, no matter how cool I make myself look on the outside. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman examines why we behave this way following such attacks. Terrorism, he writes, “induces an availability cascade. An extremely vivid image of death and damage, constantly reinforced by media attention and frequent conversations becomes highly accessible, especially if it is associated with a specific situation.”

 

Availability is more powerful in our mind than statistics. If we know that a given event is incredibly rare, but have strong mental images of such an event, then we will overweight the likelihood of that event occurring again. The more easily an idea or possibility comes to mind, the more likely it will feel to us that it could happen again. On the other hand, if we have trouble recalling experiences or instances where rare outcomes did not happen, then we will discount the possibility that they could occur. Where terrorism succeeds is because it shifts deadly events from feeling as if they were impossible to making them easily accessible in the mind, and making them feel as though they could happen again at any time. If our brains were coldly rational, then terrorism wouldn’t work as well as it does. As it is, however, our brains respond to powerful mental images and memories, and the fluidity of those mental images and memories shapes what we expect and what we think is likely or possible.
Can You Remember Your Prior Beliefs? - Joe Abittan

Can You Remember Your Prior Beliefs?

“A general limitation of the human mind,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed. Once you adopt a new view of the world (or any part of it), you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed.”

 

What Kahneman is referring to with this quote is the difficulty we have in understanding how our thinking evolves and changes over time. To each of us, our thinking slowly adapts and revises itself, sometimes quite dramatically, but often very slowly. Our experience of our changing mind isn’t very reflective of these changes, unless we had a salient change that I would argue is tied in one way or another to an important aspect of our identity. For most changes in our mental approach, we generally don’t remember our prior beliefs and views, and we likely don’t remember a point at which our beliefs changed.

 

In the book Kahneman uses an example of two football teams with the same record playing each other. One team crushes the other, but before we knew the outcome, we didn’t have a strong sense of how the game would go. After watching a resounding victory, it is hard to remember that we once were so uncertain about the future outcome.

 

This tendency of the mind wouldn’t be much of a problem if it was restricted to our thinking about sports – unless we had a serious betting problem. However, this applies to our thinking on many more important topics such as family member marriages, career choices, political voting patterns, and consumer brand loyalty. At this moment, many Democrat voters in our nation probably don’t remember exactly what their opinions were on topics like free trade, immigration, or infectious disease policy prior to the 2016 election. If they do remember their stances on any of those issues, they probably don’t remember all the legal and moral arguments they expressed at that time. Their minds and opinions on the matter have probably shifted in response to President Trump’s policy positions, but it is probably hard for many to say exactly how or why their views have changed.

 

In a less charged example, imagine that you are back in high school, and for years you have really been into a certain brand of shoes. But, one day, you are bullied for liking that brand, or perhaps someone you really dislike is now sporting that same brand, and you want to do everything in your power to distance yourself from any association with the bullying or the person you don’t like. Ditching the shoes and forgetting that you ever liked that brand is an easy switch for our minds to make, and you never have to remember that you too wore those shoes.

 

The high school example is silly, but for me it helps put our brain’s failure to remember previous opinions and beliefs in context. Our brains evolved in a social context, and for our ancestors, navigating complex tribal social structures and hierarchies was complex and sometimes a matter of life and death (not just social media death for a few years in high school like today). Being able to ditch beliefs that no longer fit our needs was probably helpful for our ancestors, especially if it helped them fully commit to a new tribal leader’s strange quirks and new spiritual beliefs. Today, this behavior can cause us to form strange high school (or office) social cliques and can foment toxic political debates, but it may have served a more constructive role for our ancestors forming early human civilizations.

Fluency of Ideas

Fluency of Ideas

Our experiences and narratives are extremely important to consider when we make judgments about the world, however we rarely think deeply about the reasons why we hold the beliefs we do. We rarely pause to consider whether our opinions are biased, whether our limited set of experiences shape the narratives that play in our mind, and how this influences our entire outlook on life. Instead, we rely on the fluency of ideas to judge our thoughts and opinions as accurate.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman writes about ideas from Cass Sunstein and jurist Timur Kuran explaining their views on fluency, “the importance of an idea is often judged by the fluency (and emotional charge) with which that idea comes to mind.” It is easy to characterize an entire group of people as hardworking, or lazy, or greedy, or funny based entirely on a single interaction with a single person from that group. We don’t pause to ask if our interaction with one person is really a good reflection of all people who fit the same group as that person, we instead allow the fluency of our past experiences to shape our opinions of all people in that group.

 

And our ideas and the fluency with which those ideas come to mind don’t have to come from our own personal experience. If a claim is repeated often enough, we will have trouble distinguishing it from truth, even if it is absurd and doesn’t have any connection to reality. The idea will come to mind more fluently, and consequently the idea will start to feel true. We don’t have to have direct experience with something if a great marketing campaign has lodge an opinion or slogan in mind that we can quickly recall.

 

If we are in an important decision-making role, it is important that we recognize this fluency bias. The fluency of ideas will drive us toward a set of conclusions that might not be in our best interests. A clever marketing campaign, a trite saying repeated by salient public leaders, or a few extreme yet random personal experiences can bias our judgment. We have to find a way to step back, recognize the narrative at hand, and find reliable data to help us make better decisions, otherwise we might end up judging ideas and making decisions based on faulty reasoning.
As an addendum to this post (originally written on 10/04/2020), this morning I began The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker. Early in the introduction, Pinker states that violence in almost all forms is decreasing, despite the fact that for many of us, it feels as though violence is as front and center in our world as ever before. Pinker argues that our subjective experience of out of control violence is in some ways due to the fluency bias that Kahneman describes from Sunstein and Kuran. Pinker writes,

 

“No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.” 

 

The fluency effect causes an observation to feel correct, even if it is not reflective of actual trends or rates in reality.
Thinking Fast and Evolution

Thinking Fast and Evolution

I have written in the past about how I think I probably put too much emphasis on evolutionary biology, especially considering brains, going all the way back to when our human ancestors liven in small tribes as hunter-gatherers. Perhaps it is because I look for it more than others, but I feel as though characteristics and traits that served us well during that time, still influence much of how we behave and respond to the world today. Sometimes the effects are insignificant, but sometimes I believe they do matter, and sometimes I believe they drive negative outcomes or behaviors that are maladapted to today’s world.

 

As I have begun writing about Daniel Kahneman’s research as presented in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, I have generally given System 1, or what Kahneman describes as our quick, automatic, and reactive part of our brain, a bad rep. But the reality is that it serves an important purpose, and likely served an especially important role over the course of human evolution, getting us to the place we are at today. Knowing that I tend to weigh our evolutionary past heavily (and perhaps too heavily), it is not surprising to me that I view System 1 as an important piece of how we got to where we are, even if System 1 is easy to pick on in our current world.

 

In his book, Kahneman writes, “Any task that requires you to keep several ideas in mind at the same time has the same hurried character. Unless you have the good fortune of a capacious working memory, you may be forced to work uncomfortably hard. The most effortful forms of slow thinking are those that require you to think fast.”

 

Anyone who has had to remember a couple of phone numbers without the benefit of being able to write them down or save them immediately, and anyone who has had to remember more words than Person, Woman, Man, Camera, TV, knows that we feel super rushed when we are suddenly given something important to hold in our working memory. We try to do what we can as quickly as possible to get the information out of our head, stored someplace other than our working memory. We feel rushed to complete the task to ease our cognitive load. Why would our brains work this way? Why would it be that we become so rushed when we have something meaningful that we need to hold in our mind?

 

The answer, as I view it, might go back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. They mostly needed System 1. They had to react quickly to a noise that could be a dangerous predator. They had to move fast and on instinct to successfully take down dinner. There were not as many things that required deep focus, and the things that required deep focus were not dense academic journal articles, or spreadsheets, or PowerPoints, or a guy with a clip-board asking you to count backward from 200 by 13. You don’t have to worry about pop-ups or advertisements when you are skinning an animal, grinding seeds, or doing some type of work with your hands in a non-digital world. You didn’t have phone numbers to remember and you were not heading into a business meeting with four people you just met, whose names you needed to memorize as quick and fluidly as possible.

 

Slow thinking developed for people who had time for slow thinking. Fast thinking developed when survival was on the line. Today, the slow thinking might be more likely to help us survive than our fast thinking, presuming we don’t have dangerous drives to work each day and are eating safely prepared foods. Slow thinking is a greater advantage for us today, but we also live in a world where slow thinking is still difficult because we have packed more distractions into our environments. We have literally moved ourselves out of environments for which our brains are optimized by evolution, and this has created the challenges and conflicts we face with System 1 and System 2 in our daily lives and in the work we do.