A tale of two selves: Daniel Kahneman on the duality of self consciousness

Does the quality of our day to day experiences matter in the long run? Psychologist Daniel Kahneman considers this question in ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ where he distinguishes between the experiencing self and the remembering self.

On returning to work after my firstborn I remember relating to my (not very empathetic) boss at the time some minor worries over our new daycare arrangements: the constant illnesses, the tears and fears of separation, and knowing our bub was no longing enjoying the one-on-one care and attention he was used to.

As if helpfully trying to put things into perspective for me (while actually trying to extricate himself from the conversation) my then boss responded, “Ah well. They all turn out alright in the end, don’t they?”

It was a throwaway line, but it stayed with me, as it struck me as so odd: Do we really believe this? That the quality of a child’s – or anyone’s – experience day to day doesn’t really matter so long as things “turn out” alright in the end?

The eminent psychologist Daniel Kahneman considers this question in Part V of his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman distinguishes between the ‘experiencing self’ and the ‘remembering self’:

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?” It is the perspective we adopt as we think about our lives. 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.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman’s research shows that we tend to make decisions for the benefit of the remembering self, while showing a surprising degree of apathy to the pains and pleasures of the experiencing self. He invites us to observe our attitude to our experiencing self using a thought experiment about an upcoming holiday.

How would this prospect affect your vacation plans? … 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.

Kahneman reports that some choose to maximise pleasure by returning to a place where they had holidayed happily before. Others show a total disregard for their experiencing self, saying they would not bother to go at all.

I am firmly in the former camp, and even rather like the idea of this hypothetical amnesic holiday: with no pressure to create new memories (and the requisite social media evidence) there would be more space and time to actually relax and enjoy the moment.

Of course, the question of which self to live for has implications not just for the way we holiday, but for all the big and small decisions about family, career and how we spend our days.

It becomes most pressing when the choices that would optimise and prolong pleasure and enjoyment in the moment – you might even say ‘happiness’ – are not the same as the choices that create a good story or a meaningful life, the goal of the remembering self. I write more about that here.

If most people were to review their life choices in this light, rightly or wrongly, they would probably find it is their remembering self who is calling the shots.

Kahneman does not provide advice on the best way to live, but concludes simply:

Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and my experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.


Author: Rachel Linton

Psychologist, reader, writer from Sydney, Australia. On this blog I write about ideas from leading thinkers in a relatable way for our time. Enjoy xx

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