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SPIEGEL Interview with Daniel Kahneman

Debunking the Myth of Intuition

Part 4: Happiness and the Remembering Self

Friday, 5/25/2012   04:42 PM

SPIEGEL: So, do we have our remembering self to thank for the fact that we courageously go out in search of adventure and memorable moments in life? Would we otherwise simply be content with long, dull periods of moderate well-being?

Kahneman: Yes, our lives are governed by the remembering self. Even when we're planning something, we anticipate the memories we expect to get out of it. The experiencing self, which may have to put up with a lot in return, has no say in the matter. Besides, what the experiencing self has enjoyed can be completely devaluated in retrospect. Someone once told me that he had recently listened to a wonderful symphony but, unfortunately, at the end, there was a terrible screeching sound on the record. He said that ruined the whole experience. But, of course, the only thing it ruined was the memory of the experience, (which was) still a happy experience.

SPIEGEL: Does that also apply to an entire life? Is it all about the end?

Kahneman: Yes, in a sense. We can't help but look at life retrospectively, and we want it to look good in retrospect. There was once an experiment in which the subjects were supposed to evaluate the life of a fictitious woman who had had a very happy life but then died in an accident. Astonishingly, whether she died at 30 or 60 had no effect whatsoever on their evaluation. But when the subjects were told that the woman had had 30 happy years followed by five that were no so happy, the scores got worse. Or imagine a scientist who has made an important discovery, a happy and successful man, and after his death it turns out that the discovery was false and isn't worth anything. It spoils the entire story even though absolutely nothing about the scientist's life has changed. But now you feel pity for him.

SPIEGEL: Would you go so far as to say that it's the remembering self that makes us human? Animals probably don't collect memorable moments.

Kahneman: Well, I actually think that animals do because they must score experiences as worth repeating and others as worth avoiding. And, from the evolutionary point of view, that makes sense. The duration of an experience is simply not relevant. What matters for survival is whether it ended well and how bad it got. This also applies to animals.

SPIEGEL: In your view, the remembering self is very dominant -- to the point that it seems to have practically enslaved the experiencing self.

Kahneman: In fact, I call it a tyranny. It can vary in intensity, depending on culture. Buddhists, for example, emphasize the experience, the present; they try to live in the moment. They put little weight on memories and retrospective evaluation. For devout Christians, it's completely different. For them, the only thing that matters is whether they go to heaven at the end.

SPIEGEL: People reading your book will sympathize with the poor experiencing self, which essentially has to do our living.

Kahneman: That was my intention. Readers should realize that there is another way of looking at it. I would say it's comforting for me because both my wife and I complain all the time that our memories are terrible. We don't really go to the theater to remember what we've seen later on, but to enjoy the performance. Other people live through life collecting experiences like you collect pictures.

SPIEGEL: In other words, they think that only a wealth of memories can make them happy.

Kahneman: Here we have to distinguish between satisfaction and happiness. When you ask people whether they're happy, their answers can differ widely depending on their current mood. Let me give you an example: For years, the Gallup institute has been polling about a thousand Americans on various issues, including their well-being. One of the most surprising findings is that, when the first question is about politics, people immediately consider themselves less happy.

SPIEGEL: True calamities, on the other hand, seem to have surprisingly little effect on well-being. Paraplegics, for example, hardly differ from healthy individuals in terms of their satisfaction with life.

Kahneman: At any rate, the difference is smaller than one would expect. That's because, when we think of paraplegics, we are subject to an illusion that is hard to escape: We automatically focus on all the things that change as a result of the disability, and we overlook what is still the same in everyday life. It's similar with income. Everyone wants to make more money, and yet the salary level -- at least above a certain threshold -- has no influence whatsoever on emotional happiness, although life satisfaction continues to rise with income.

SPIEGEL: And where is that threshold?

Kahneman: Here in the United States, it's at a household income of about $75,000 (€60,000). Below that, it makes a substantial difference. It's terrible to be poor. No matter if you are sick or going through a divorce, everything is worse if you're poor.

SPIEGEL: So, is it harder to get used to illness or disability than poverty?

Kahneman: I think we adapt more quickly to improvement than to deterioration.

SPIEGEL: Professor Kahneman, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Manfred Dworschak and Johann Grolle.

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About Daniel Kahnemann

    Daniel Kahneman, 78, is an Israeli-American psychologist specializing in the psychology of judgment and decision-making as well as behavioral economics. He is currently a senior scholar and emeritus professor at Princeton University. In 2002, Kahneman was awarded the Nobel prize in economics for his work on prospect theory, which helps explain the role biases play in decision-making. In 2011, he published a summary of much of his research in "Thinking, Fast and Slow," which became a best-seller. This interview took place on the occasion of the publication in May 2012 of the German translation of that book. The magazine Foreign Policy also included him in its list of the top global thinkers in 2011.


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