A Thought Experiment

Imagine, as part of an experiment, you are asked to keep your hands in 14 degree water for 60 seconds. Later, after your hands have warmed up, the experiment is repeated -- but this time your hands are subjected to 30 seconds of 15 degree water immediately following the 60 seconds of 14 degree water.

The researchers asked the participants which experience they would choose to repeat (if they had to pick one). Easy, right? The first one, because the second resulted in 30 seconds of additional discomfort.

Nope. Social psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Barbara Fredrickson, who conducted the experiment in 1993, discovered that most people chose to repeat the longer experience.

It’s important to note that the participants were not masochists -- they did not enjoy pain. Rather, the reason most selected the second experience is due to two cognitive biases that humans have -- duration neglect and the peak-end rule. We tend to judge experiences not by their duration but by their most painful moments (their peak).

So -- of the two experiences, it’s the second most participants said they would repeat; even though it was longer, the pain was diminished at the end by the slight rise in the water temperature.

A few examples of how these cognitive biases play out in the real world:

  • A job you loved until the company was sold and management no longer cared about the employee culture

  • A friendship of many years that ended bitterly

  • And, less dramatically, a 5-course meal, delicious until it was ruined by lumpy chocolate mousse

The years of career satisfaction, the great times you had with your friend, and the wonderful first four courses are not how you remember these experiences; what you remember is how they ended (not pleasantly).

The tendency to remember experiences by their outcome is baked-in to the human psyche. But we should all try to factor duration into our reflections on the past -- something might not have ended well, but there was likely a lot of good along the way.

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