13 March 2013

The Similarity between a Colonoscopy and a Holiday

We live in a world full of “stuff”, of material possessions powered by the almighty philosophy of consumerism. Of course there are places on Earth that do not have the abundance that characterizes the “western” world, but even so, we are overwhelmed with “stuff”.

If you don’t believe me, try moving to a new home and while packing things up you will get the main idea. If you still don’t believe me, think about the “personal storage spaces” business. If we would not be overwhelmed with “stuff” why would people rent storage spaces outside their homes?

However, in this post, I don’t want to talk too much about material possessions, but rather I wish to cover the topic of experiences. Even if we are surrounded by “stuff”, our lives are not made out of “things”. The essence of living is the act of living. To put things a bit simpler, your life is made out of your experiences, of what you are experiencing every second.

We have experiences each moment in our lives. We experience sleeping (by the way, it’s not a bad idea to invest large amounts of money in a good bed), we experience eating meals, we experience using public transport, we experience driving, we experience working, we experience going out for dinner, we experience going on holiday and so on.

One interesting thing about experiences is that we believe that they are more or less like physical products, like “stuff”. We believe that the experience of a holiday in Spain is very similar to a couch. However, this is not true. Things (stuff) are roughly the same regardless if you use them at this point or if you think of using them. For example, there is not a huge difference between you sitting on your couch and you thinking about or remembering your couch. On the other hand, there is a huge difference between you being on holiday in Spain and you remembering your holiday in Spain.

The main characteristic of experiences is that the memory about an experience such as a holiday in Spain is different from the actual experience of being on holiday in Spain NOW.

As Daniel Kahneman puts it, we have two “selves”:  (1) the “experiencing Self” – the one that actually lives the experience in the present and (2) the “remembering Self” – the one that remembers the experiences lived by the “experiencing self”.  
Each of these two selves has its own evaluation of an experience. Surprisingly or not, the two evaluations are different.

The evaluation of the “experiencing self” is quite straightforward. We know how we feel and what we feel in every moment. For example if you like what you are reading now, you feel good, you are happy and so on. We know that we feel pleasure when we experience something pleasurable. Similarly, we know that we feel pain when we feel pain.

The evaluation of the “remembering self” is very different from the one of the “experiencing self”. If the two selves (experiencing and remembering) would be the same, then the memory of an experience would be the average of each and every instance of evaluations made at every point in time.

Let me illustrate a bit more. Imagine that you go on a week-end trip to a nice place in the mountains. You spend there about 24 hours and you decide to evaluate your experience every 15 minutes. This means that you will have 96 instances of evaluations made by your “experiencing self”.

If the experiencing and remembering selves would be alike, then your overall evaluation of your “trip to the mountains” experience would be the average of the 96 evaluations made every 15 minutes during the actual experience.

However, the “remembering self” is distinct from the “experiencing self” and what the “remembering self” thinks about your “trip to the mountains” experience is very different from the average of the 96 evaluations your “experiencing self” made.
What the scholars of happiness have found about the differences between the memory of an experience (“remembering self”) and the actual experience (“experiencing self”) can be summarized in two main principles.

First is the “Peak-End Rule” which says that a memory about an experience is influenced by the maximum point and the ending point of the actual experience. What this means is that apart from the maximum pleasure (or pain) and the pleasure (or pain) felt at the end of the experience, you will not remember much, or more accurately your retrospective overall evaluation of the experience will ignore all the other instances actually experienced.

For example imagine that you go on holiday to Spain. One week after you get back home, your friends ask you “how was your trip?”. In order to give an answer, you will look back and make an evaluation of your holiday in Spain. This is your “remembering self” at work. Your answer to the question mentioned above will be determined by the peak of your experience, let’s say visiting Sagrada Família (a monumental cathedral in Barcelona), and by the last thing you have experienced in Spain, let’s say the superb meal that you had on the last night before leaving Spain. Of course you could have had a miserable experience and remember getting robed (peak of experience) and the unfriendly staff at the airport (end of the experience), but let’s be positive.

Your actual experience of visiting Spain was, however, more complex than just the peak and the end of it. Fortunately or not even if you remember instances of the holiday other than the peak and the end, when making a retrospective overall evaluation you will ignore all the other instances.

The second principle about the differences between the actual and the remembered experiences is “Duration Neglect”. Closely related to the “Peak-End Rule”, duration neglect means that our overall retrospective evaluations of our experiences discard the actual length of the experience. To put things a bit simpler, when you actually have an experience (“experiencing self”) how long it is matters, but when you remember experiences (“remembering self”) how long the experience was has virtually zero importance.

Going back to the holiday trip in Spain, when you are asked “how was it?” your answer will be the same as before regardless if you have been in Spain for 6 or 7 days, as long as visiting Sagrada Família and having that wonderful last dinner in Spain still happen. However, when you actually are in Spain it matters if you are there for 6 or 7 days.

In a very famous study by Redelmeier, Katz, and Kahneman, the researchers investigated the difference between experience and memory of a painful experience (colonoscopy). One group of patients had a brief procedure, whereas the other group had a slightly longer one. The short procedure ended with a high discomfort (pain) for the patient, while the longer procedure ended with a lower discomfort (but still painful).

The actual experience was better for the patients who received the brief procedure as compared to the experience of the ones who received the long procedure in the sense that the total amount of experienced pain was smaller. However, when asked to evaluate their experience in retrospect the ones that received the longer procedure (with more experienced pain) rated their experience less bad than the ones who received the short procedure (with less experienced pain).

This is a very powerful illustration of both the peak-end rule and the duration neglect. People who have had less pain in total (short procedure), but the ending of experience was very painful remembered their experience as worse than people who have had more pain in total (long procedure), but the ending of the experience was less painful. As you can see, retrospective evaluations of our experiences are based on the peak of the experience (both groups of patients had the same peak of pain) and on the end of the experience which was different for the two groups. Moreover, the duration of the experience was ignored in the sense that people who have had actually longer painful experiences which ended with a less bad experience remembered their experience as being better (less worse) than the people who had suffered less actual pain.

Now, let’s go to the practical, business related implications of this difference between the experience and the memory about the experience.

A somehow naïve opinion on the difference between experience and memory would be to ignore it. A skeptic might think “What do I care what people remember? After all they remember whatever they want to remember!”

OK! Point taken, but answer the following question: “Who makes the decision? The experiencing or the remembering self?”  

The answer to this question is most often “The remembering self”. For example if you consider going on a holiday next year and one of your options is to go to Spain, then your memory  (“remembering self”) on your previous holiday in Spain will be crucial in your decision. It goes similar for recommending to others to go on holiday to Spain.

Another example can be about getting dental treatment. When you go to the dentist you live the experience, but when you decide to which doctor to go the next time, what actually counts is the memory of your previous experience with a certain doctor.

What can be done about this is quite simple. In many cases a business can’t control the “peak” of the client’s experience. For example a hotel can’t control the peak of a tourist’s experience in a city. However, it can do something about the end of the experience. Most hotels offer breakfast, but as far as I know none offer a “lavish good bye dinner”. The last meal a tourist has in a destination is very likely to be her “end experience” in that place. This means that by providing a nice ending to one’s holiday, the overall memory of the holiday will be more positive.

In other cases there is some control over both the end and the peak of a client’s experience. For example cruise ship operators can significantly influence the peak of the client’s experience simply because people are “captive” on a cruise ship and most of what they do on that ship can be influenced by the operator. It goes similarly for medical practices or other types of personal services because the entire experience can be controlled by the provider.

Before concluding, I would like to address one very serious question, namely “Which of the experiencing and remembering selves is more important?”.

This is a really hard question to answer. From a business perspective, the “remembering self” is more important because it is the one that will make future decisions. At the same time, the “experiencing self” is also very important because people are living in the “Eternal Now”. Moreover, the “experiencing self” is the one that may complain or be thrilled by your services.

One particular salient example of the tradeoff between the “experiencing” and “remembering” selves is the case of Asian tourists (at least in Europe). As I see it, most Asian tourists are more concerned with taking pictures and video-recording every possible landscape, building, plant, stone etc. At the same time, in my view, they actually miss their experience of visiting countries in Europe. I believe they fail to actually live the experience they go through.

I assume my observations on Asian tourists in Europe are a bit biased because I usually don’t take pictures and simply enjoy the experience.

Regardless of my impressions on Asian tourists, in many instances we are faced with the tradeoff between actual and remembered experiences. I guess both have roughly the same importance.
Note: This post is documented from:

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow (chapter 35). London: Allen Lane.

Redelmeier, D. A., Katz, J., & Kahneman, D. (2003). Memories of colonoscopy: A randomized trial. Pain, 104, 187–194.

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