Early in the days of my work on the measurement of experience, I saw Verdi’s opera “La Traviata.” Known for its gorgeous music, it is also a moving story of the love between a young aristocrat and Violetta, a woman of the demimonde.
The young man’s father approaches Violetta and persuades her to give up her lover, to protect the honor of the family and the marriage prospects of the young man’s sister. In an act of supreme self-sacrifice, Violetta pretends to reject the man she adores. She soon relapses into consumption (tuberculosis). In the final act, she lies dying, though her beloved is rushing to Paris to see her. Hearing the news, she is transformed with hope and joy, but she is also deteriorating quickly.
No matter how many times you have seen the opera, you are gripped by the tension and fear of the moment: Will the lover arrive in time? He does, of course, some love duets are sung and, after 10 minutes of music, Violetta dies.
I wondered: Why do we care so much about those last 10 minutes? I realized that I did not care at all about the length of Violetta’s life. Her missing a year of happy life would not have moved me, but her missing the last 10 minutes mattered. Furthermore, the emotion I felt about the reunion would not have changed if I had learned that they had a week together.
If the lover had come too late, however, “La Traviata” would have been a different story. A story is about significant events and memorable moments, not about time passing. This is how the remembering self works: It composes stories and keeps them for future reference.
It is not only at the opera that we think of life as a story and wish it to end well. When we hear about the death of a woman estranged from her daughter for years, we want to know whether they were reconciled as death approached. We do not care only about the daughter’s feelings -- it is the narrative of the mother’s life that we wish to improve.
Caring for people often takes the form of concern for the quality of their stories, not for their feelings. Indeed, we can be deeply moved even by events that change the stories of people already dead. We feel pity for a man who died believing in his wife’s love for him when we hear that she had a lover for many years and stayed with her husband only for his money. We pity the husband although he had lived a happy life. We feel the humiliation of a scientist who made a discovery that was proved false after she died, although she did not feel the humiliation.
Most important, 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.
The psychologist Ed Diener and his students wondered whether duration neglect and the peak-end rule governed evaluations of entire lives. They used a short description of a fictitious character called Jen, a never-married woman with no children, who died instantly and painlessly in an automobile accident. In one version of Jen’s story, she was extremely happy throughout her life, which lasted either 30 or 60 years. Another version added to Jen’s life five extra years that were pleasant but less so than the previous 30 or 60. After reading a biography of Jen, each participant was asked to assess Jen’s total happiness.
Doubling the duration of Jen’s life, it turned out, had no effect whatsoever on people’s judgments of the total happiness that Jen experienced. Diener and his students also found that adding five “slightly happy” years to a very happy life caused participants to substantially reduce their evaluations of the total happiness of Jen’s life.
Also collected were data on the effect of the extra five years, with each participant making both judgments in immediate succession. In spite of my experience with judgment errors, I did not believe that reasonable people could say that adding five slightly happy years to a life would make it worse. I was wrong. The intuition that the disappointing extra five years made the whole life worse was overwhelming.
Duration Doesn’t Matter
Diener and his students initially thought that the results represented the folly of the young people who participated in their experiments, but the pattern did not change when parents and older friends answered the same questions. In intuitive evaluations of lives, peaks and ends matter, but duration does not.
The pains of labor and the benefits of vacations come up as objections to the idea of duration neglect: We all share the intuition that it is worse for labor to last 24 hours than six hours, and that six days at a good resort is better than three. Duration appears to matter in these situations, but this is only because the quality of the end changes with the length of the episode. The mother is more depleted and helpless after 24 hours, and the vacationer is more refreshed after six days. What matters when we intuitively assess such episodes is the progressive deterioration or improvement of the ongoing experience, and how the person feels at the end.
Consider the choice of a vacation. Do you prefer to enjoy a relaxing week at the familiar beach you visited last year? Or do you hope to enrich your store of memories? Distinct industries have developed to cater to these alternatives: Resorts offer restorative relaxation; tourism is about helping people construct stories and collect memories.
The frenetic picture-taking of tourists suggests that storing memories is often an important goal, which shapes both the vacation plans and the experience. The photographer does not view the scene as a moment to be savored but as a future memory to be designed. Pictures may be useful to the remembering self -- though we rarely look at them for very long, or as often as we expected, or even at all -- but picture-taking is not necessarily the best way for the tourist’s experiencing self to enjoy a view.
In many cases we evaluate touristic vacations by the story and the memories that we expect to store. But in other situations -- love comes to mind -- the declaration that the moment will never be forgotten changes the character of the moment. A self-consciously memorable experience gains a significance that it would not otherwise have.
Benefits of Vacation
Diener’s team provided evidence that it is the remembering self that chooses vacations. They asked students to record daily evaluations of their experiences during spring break. The students also provided a global rating of the vacation at its end. Finally, they indicated whether or not they intended to repeat the vacation.
Statistical analysis established that the intentions for future vacations were determined by the final evaluation -- even when that score did not accurately represent the quality of the experience described in the diaries.
An experiment about your next vacation will allow you to observe your attitude to your experiencing self: At the end of the vacation, all pictures and videos will be destroyed. Furthermore, you will swallow a potion that will wipe out all your memories of the vacation. How would this affect your vacation plans? How much would you be willing to pay for it, relative to a normally memorable vacation?
My impression is that the elimination of memories greatly reduces the value of the experience.
Imagine a painful operation during which you will scream in pain and beg the surgeon to stop. However, you are promised an amnesia-inducing drug that will wipe out any memory of the episode. Here again, my observation is that most people are remarkably indifferent to the pains of their experiencing self. Some say they don’t care at all. Others share my feeling, which is that I feel pity for my suffering self but not more than I would feel for a stranger in pain.
I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.
(Daniel Kahneman, a professor of psychology emeritus at Princeton University and professor of psychology and public affairs emeritus at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work with Amos Tverksy on decision making. This is the last in a four-part series of condensed excerpts from his new book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The opinions expressed are his own. See Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.)
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