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Sorta Random Sunday: Which “Self” Matters More?

In psychological terms, we can define ourselves by two separate “selves.” There is the experiencing self and there is the remembering self. This was a concept that I could almost peripherally feel my whole life even if I couldn’t put my finger on it. And then I came across an amazing discussion of the topic in Daniel Kahneman’s great book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. So, which self matters more?

It’s a really interesting question to consider. But for starters, come definitions.

self matters more

What is the experiencing self?

The experiencing self is the self that experiences. How about that for a clear definition? So maybe let’s try and example. As I write this post, I am experiencing every moment of it. There is a way that I feel as a write. Certain thoughts cross my mind. It is present (to varying degrees) in the moment. And on and on.

That is my experiencing self.

In contrast…

What is the remembering self?

Your remembering self is the part of you that thinks back on and remembers past events and how you perceived that you experienced them.

Going back to my example, later tonight or some time in the future I may think back on wiring this post. And I’ll remember how I perceive that I felt. I will think back with satisfaction on having written this and on and on.

So, what’s the difference?

Initially, we tend to think that there is no difference between the experiencing and remembering selves. So why would we debate if one self matters more?

But think a little more about it. You will note above that when I described the remembering self, I wrote that it is the part of you that thinks back on and remembers past events and how you perceived that you experienced them. I did not write that we remember how we experienced them.

Because there is a difference. We remember events different than we experience them.

So, which self matters more?

I will hold the suspense to share that it is our remembering self that matters more. At least that is how we behave. To examine this, let’s recap an interesting experiment that Kahneman and he team performed and published. This along with a lot of other data not only show that there is a difference between the two selves but that we do favor our remembering self.

The hand-in-ice test

Briefly, in this experiment, participants were asked to keep their hand in very cold (uncomfortably cold but not dangerous) water until they were told to remove their hand.

In one trial, the participants had to keep their hands in the water for a certain period of time, let’s say 5 minutes (I forget the exact amount). In another trial, the participants had their hands in the water for 6 minutes. Except, in this second trial, after 5 minutes, small amounts of slightly warmer water were slowly added until, at the completion of the trial (6 minutes), the water temperature had risen 1 degree.

If you had to chose to undergo one of these trial designs again, which would you chose?

I hope that you said the 5 minute trial! It only makes sense. Why would you submit to an extra minute of your hand in the cold water? Even if it was warming up ever so slightly? You would never put your experiencing self through that!

However, we the experiment participants were asked which trial they would rather re-do, the majority chose the second trial. They chose to keep their hand in the water for longer. Why would they do this?!

The answer is because the remembering self recalls the second trial as slightly more pleasant. Because when we remember events, we tend to mostly remember the peak part of the experience (hither positive of negative) and the last part. And the last part of trial 2 was better than trial 1 because the water was warmer.

Our remembering self is willing to sacrifice our experiencing self!

This has been reinforced with even more studies including polls in which people would be more willing to undergo a longer painful medical procedure if they knew they would be amnestic of the event.

What does this mean?

Honestly, I’m not even sure. Like I said earlier, I believe I always had some vague conception of this. Even my financial comeback story contains elements that my experiencing self may not see eye-to-eye with my remembering self on…

It’s a very interesting nuance about our minds and how they work. In some respects, perhaps it makes sense as the present is just a moment while memories last forever. But it still just doesn’t make rational sense.

But if there is one thing that I take away after reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, it is that humans are inarguably irrational. Sometimes this carries unique adaptations that clearly helped our predecessors. In this case, it remains less clear to me.

It does however, in my mind at least, help explain how social media has exploded and we now see people taking infinite pictures of their experiences and meals. Even if these interruptions lessen the experience for the experiencing self, the pictures may enhance the remembering self’s perception of the experience. And let me be clear, I do not condone this behavior!

For me, I think this is something that I file away as I continue seeking to be more present in the moment. The experiencing self needs some love too.

What do you think? Which self matters more? Have you ever noticed a difference between your experiencing and remembering selves? Let me know in the comments below!

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    Jordan Frey MD, a plastic surgeon in Buffalo, NY, is one of the fastest-growing physician finance bloggers in the world. See how he went from financially clueless to increasing his net worth by $1M in 1 year and how you can do the same! Feel free to send Jordan a message at [email protected].

    2 thoughts on “Sorta Random Sunday: Which “Self” Matters More?”

    1. Hi Jordan, thanks for writing this. I’ve been intrigued by Dr. Kahneman’s work for years. For me, pondering the difference between the Experiencing and Remembering selves has led to finding more ‘selves’ that actually have a positive impact on my life– the Self sacrificing self, the Heroic self (these arise out of the Experiencing self), and the Awe-inspired Self, the Experimenting self, and the Brainstorming Self (these are living artifacts of the Remembering Self.) looking at the ‘Selves’ this way has a powerful transformative effect on my life and on others, because as you say, it’s hard to know what Kahneman’s self-dichotomy ‘means’.


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