Your Two Selves

That’s right, you have two selves. No, you really do. An Experiencing Self and a Narrating Self. You may have come across these terms before but if you haven’t, a quick definition.

The Experiencing Self – the part of you that registers your moment to moment experiences. Pain, pleasure, happiness, sadness etc. This part of you has no goal, memory, or drive. It registers the moment.

The Narrating Self – the part of you that creates the fictions that drive your thoughts, looks through your memories, dreams of the future. It utilises only some of the information from the Experiencing Self and if devoid of that information it will create a complete fiction to fill in the gap.

If you want proof of this claim in 1993 a study by Kahneman and his colleagues asked volunteers to participate in an experiment. First, they submerged the participants hands in water at 14 degrees Celsius for 60 seconds. This cause immense pain and was an all-round unpleasant experience and the participants reported it as such. In the next step of the experiment, the participants hands were submerged in 14 degree water for another 60 seconds, however, this time they were tasked to keep their hands in for an extra 30 seconds, but unbeknownst to them during this last 30 seconds the water temperature was gradually increased by a single degree.

I think we would all agree that a jump from 14 degrees to 15 isn’t a huge difference. And yet, over 80% of the participants reported that they preferred the longer test, the 90 second one, to the short 60 second one, despite the fact that they were arguable put through more pain for longer.

How to explain this?

This is an example of the peak/end rule. It basically states that the duration of an event is irrelevant to the average of the most intense moment (the peak) and the sensation at the end.

This occurs because your Experiencing Self has no say when something is looked back on. I’m sure if you could ask the Experiencing side of yourself it would cry out that the 60 second test was far more pleasant. But because it is your Narrating Self that has final say, it looks back on the event with glasses coloured by the final moment and average it to the peak.

That is why if you’re on a holiday at a tropical island and it rains the whole time right up until the last two days when there is perfect weather. When asked about your holiday later your Experiencing Self doesn’t get a say, only your Narrating Self will look back and it will focus on the peak or the end, or an average of the two. You might end up reflecting on a pretty good holiday with a bit of rain, when in reality you were stuck inside for a week straight and the floor flooded.

What implications does this have?

On a day to day basis, maybe not much. But because of the peak/end relationship, your Narrating Self, the part of you that makes choices, may well inflict more pain or suffering on your body and mind than necessary due to how it weighs memories.

Being aware of your two selves though can help you become aware of any bias that may influence your decision making.

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