People who have had a painful experience remember it as less painful if the pain tapers off, rather than cutting off sharply at the height of intensity, even if they experience more pain overall. I'd heard of this finding before (from Dan Ariely), but Kahneman uses the finding to throw the idea of "experiencing self" vs. "remembering self" into sharp relief. He then discusses the far-reaching implications of this dichotomy and our blindness to it.

The talk is entitled "The riddle of experience vs. memory".

 

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I thought this was interesting. (I watched the whole thing and didn't want my 20 minutes back.)

However, one premise confused me. He referred to the 'tyranny of the remembering self' and suggested that there could be more balance. But I'm not sure why we should care about the experiencing self at all.

As I child, I experimented with abnegating the experiencing self, and found that it was a pretty straight-forward route to success and well-being. Maybe I was wrong, but I thought this.

Why should we value the memory of experiences? For me, it's simply because I enjoy them. It gives me momentary pleasure to think back on good times. But it also gives me momentary pleasure to eat ice cream. The tyranny Kahneman refers to is our bias towards optimizing an experience for the memories it will give versus optimizing an experience for the momentary pleasure of the experience itself. If memories give relatively little total future pleasure in comparison to the momentary experience itself then I think we are mistaken to optimize in this fashion.

I liked this talk a lot, but after some reflection I think I have to disagree with the main premise. He tries to draw a distinction between memory and experience, but in reality just having memories has no impact on the rememberer until they actively recall those memories. It is the recollection of memories which impact us, and this is an experience -- we are essentially re-experiencing a skewed interpretation of the experience we had before.

Same with imagining or planning for the future; our brains are merely trying to emulate for us the experience that, according to our internal models, we will have in the future given a set of circumstances being projected forward in time.

For me, the most striking observation was that we often spend a tiny amount of time enjoying the memory of an experience relative to the amount of time we spent experiencing it in the first place. I think that even my favourite memories would have given me no more than a few hours total enjoyment time over my lifetime. Yet Kahneman correctly points out that many of our actions are geared towards optimizing the memories we get. This seems like a cognitive bias that we would do well to overcome.

He says that your experiencing self will not be happier in a warmer climate as opposed to a colder one. But isn't it an established fact that a lot of people in Nordic countries suffer from depression due to the diminished level of UV radiation in the winter?

The causal effects of UV radiation aren't really relevant to his point -- he'd still make the same claim even if both climes were equally UV-irradiated.

How so? His claim was that people will not be happier in warmer climates. I'm making a counterclaim to the contrary, that the experiencing self can be significantly happier(or at least feel significantly better) in climates where there is enough UV-radiation as opposed to those where there isn't like the Nordic countries and probably Alaska(in the case of the US).

It's meant to be an example from a broader class: the class of large life changes that, contrary to expectation, do not lead to increased happiness reports from the experiencing self. (In his specific example, you only get increased happiness reports by asking people to compare their current warmer life with their past colder life, thereby engaging the remembering self.)

In any event, if you're talking about seasonal affective disorder, it seems that dawn simulation works best, so it's related to visible light, not UV radiation.

It's meant to be an example from a broader class: the class of large life changes that, contrary to expectation, do not lead to increased happiness reports from the experiencing self.

So you don't think that people suffering form seasonal affective disorder will be happier in a warmer climate where they won't suffer from this disorder?

If you assume that he was talking only about people who do not have SAD, do you have any other concerns about the claim?

  • SAD is one of those labels that gets applied when a reasonably normal human phenomenon is expressed in an exaggerated or maladaptive way. I would expect some impact of climate on on reported happiness due to this mechanism even if SAD people were excluded from the sample.
  • On average, people are vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D influence mood. I would expect another (small) difference via this mechanism.
  • People do more exercise when it isn't snowing. Exercise is one of the few things that can give a sustained mood benefit.

Even with these considerations in mind I more or less agree with the gist of the claim. I more or less assume it to be common knowledge by now.

Even with these considerations in mind I more or less agree with the gist of the claim. I more or less assume it to be common knowledge by now.

How can you agree with the claim in spite of the counterarguments you presented? More at my comment above.

I reject the claim but not what he was (I assume) trying to claim.

I expect people to benefit less from changes in circumstances than they expect. We tend towards emotional homeostasis. I wouldn't have used weather as an example because there are confounding factors that I predict a sufficiently in depth study could identify. I don't, however, think that average people would get the benefits they expect from a warmer climate just because it is more appealing.

If Kahneman was willing to weaken his claim to acknowledge the exceptions that you and I mention or, preferably, if he were to use a better example to illustrate the point then I would accept it. However, Kahneman has high status in the context so this makes it far less likely that he would be willing to make the obvious necessary corrections when prompted. So he would probably stay wrong.

It is important to compare different strands of happiness research to figure out if they are measuring the same thing. Kahneman's talk was about how two fairly similar measures - both self-report - yield wildly different answers. Incapacitating depression and especially suicide are another rather different happiness measure. They are very coarse measures, but suicide is fairly objective and thus easy to compare across cultures. It has a clear polar trend, though not within the US. (finer world maps requested! also, cartograms - on the last map is SF deadly?)

We should compare different measures. This failure to match is a big red flag. Kahneman only mentioned weather data incidentally, but it's important. Of course, there are many possibilities, such as SAD being a threshold effect - such a small part of the population should not affect polling. Cross-culturally, what are the self-reports of people with incapacitating depression or suicidal ideation?

Sure I have. First he made a general claim so I don't think it is fair to exclude people who particularly suffer from the cold climate, especially since I guess those are the ones who are more probable to move to a warmer one.

Also SAD is only one example of many, in general it is simply a fact that warmer climates are much more friendly to life in several aspects than the colder ones. There is much more biodiversity in the tropics for a reason.

And the larger claim that Kahneman was attempting to support with this example -- how about that?

His larger claim was that there is a difference between experiencing self and remembering self. I agree with this. However in the case of warmer climates I think it is one of the cases where experiencing self agree with the remembering self and are happier.

I concede that the example may have been poorly chosen. He could have checked this in the original research but not bothered to talk about it during the presentation; or maybe he screwed up. In either case, the original paper is available at his website for your assessment.

[Kahneman asks:] Imagine that for your next vacation you know that at the end of the vacation all your pictures will be destroyed and you'll get an amnesic drug, so that you won't remember anything. Now, would you choose the same vacation?

[Kahneman asks:] Imagine that for your next vacation you know that at the end of the vacation all your pictures will be destroyed and you'll get an amnesic drug, so that you won't remember anything. Now, would you choose the same vacation?

I would choose a vacation that involved a massive regimen of physical training and healthy eating. So much the same as what I would pick anyway with an educational component truncated and with somewhat less emphasis on trees, beaches and rainforests as backdrop. (Although even then I would consider a natural environment for the neurological impact I would expect beyond just episodic memory.)

[Kahneman asks:] Imagine that for your next vacation you know that at the end of the vacation all your pictures will be destroyed and you'll get an amnesic drug, so that you won't remember anything. Now, would you choose the same vacation?

I think of this as kind of like picking a vacation for another person -- a person who is going to die after the vacation. But that doesn't quite answer the question for me, because I know that during the vacation I wouldn't have the same feeling as I would if I knew I was actually going to die afterwards. I'm not sure how I would feel.

Thanks for the pointer. There is much discussion in philosophy of the difficulties and possibilities of disentangling information about subjective experience as such from memories, verbal reports, and the like. See (http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/) Eric Schwitgebel's Descriptive Experience Sampling experiment, for example. Kahneman's research will certainly help fuel the fire; I hope it also advances the debate.