November 01, 2011
Experiences v. Memories: Should Law and Policy Care More About Your First Love or Your Memories of It?
Posted by Peter Huang

As promised at the conclusion of my first post, this post concerns a riddle that Danny Kahneman posed about how our experiencing selves differ systematically from our remembering selves. Based upon a number of subjective well-being (SWB) surveys and neuroscience studies, people's remembered emotions are usually rosier than people's experienced emotions, and people are motivated to make choices based upon their predicted emotions which tend to coincide with their emotional memories. In a TED talk, Kahneman nicely illustrates his central thesis that anticipated memories of experiences as opposed to the actual anticipated experiences themselves motivate people’s behavior by stating that very frequently and to a large degree people take vacations in service of their remembering selves. 


As comedian Dave Barry jokingly points out, "the human race is far too stupid to be deterred from tourism by a mere several million years of bad experiences, and today we’re traveling in larger numbers than ever." In fact, empirical studies find that not only do prospective reports of vacation enjoyment and retrospective ones converge, but also both predicted and remembered affect are more positive than affect concurrently reported during vacations. Another study that compared students’ predicted, concurrently experienced, and remembered affect respectively before, during, and after their spring break vacations found that predicted and remembered affect is both more positive and more negative than concurrently experienced affect, but remembered affect best predicts undergraduates’ desires of taking similar vacations in the future.

Despite the many expected and inevitable hassles of travel, it seems intuitively plausible that some people would prefer to actually experience a vacation in addition to having fond memories of that vacation. The idea that some people may not just want anticipated memories is viscerally illustrated by a debate among characters in the science fiction thriller, Total Recall, about utilizing the services of Rekall, Inc. which is a corporation that provides implanted false memories of ideal virtual holidays. 


Of course, none of us remembers every single moment in our lives and of those moments that we do remember, not all of them are remembered with equal clarity or emphasis. Naturally, our memories are fallible and imperfect. But such an observation compares human memories to records of a computer or some other infallible and perfect recording device left on 24/7. Such a comparison misconstrues human memory as having a goal of perfect recall. Psychologist William James pointed out, "[s]election is the very keel on which our mental ship is built. And in this case of memory its utility is obvious. If we remembered everything, we should be on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing." Instead, we remember to help us derive meaning from and make sense of all the moments in our lives. People only remember that which is personally meaningful, and what is meaningful to people often changes during their lifetimes in light of subsequent events (e.g. divorce or infidelity).

Father Guido Sarducci, a famous, fictional character on the National Broadcasting Company late night program Saturday Night Live in the 1970s and 1908s that original cast member comedian Don Novello created and played, proposes in a very entertaining monologue to start a new university that would teach in five minutes only that information which students on average would remember five years after leaving college. For example, he jokes that his Five Minute University Spanish class teaches only "¿Como está usted?" which means "how are you" and "muy bien" which means "very well" because that is pretty much all that most students remember five years after taking four semesters of college Spanish. Similarly, his economics class teaches "Supply and Demand" only. He concludes by saying: "I'm not sure, but I'm pretty sure, right next door to the five minute university, I might open up a little law school. You got another minute?"


Of course, his central point that most college students remember only very little of the vast amount of material that they study in four years of college or three years of law school applies not only to students, but also people more generally. An influential expert on human memory and law, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus points out that people’s memories not only are constructed rather than being played back liked a video recording, but also can be influenced by suggestive language and images. In a justifiably famous experiment of 120 people who had visited Disneyland or Disney World, Elizabeth Loftus and Jacquie Pickrell found that 30% of people who had read a phony advertisement for Disneyland with a photograph of Bugs Bunny just outside of the Magic Kingdom reported that indeed they remembered, or knew, they had actually seen and met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland and even shook his hand (or paw). That memory has to be false though because Bugs Bunny is a Warner Brothers character and not part of the Disney universe.


Disneyland Los Angeles California

Psychological research confirms that people’s emotional memories depend on their current emotions, current appraisals and interpretations of past experiences, and coping efforts in addition to personality traits. Psychologists Linda Levine, Martin Safer, and Heather Lench point out that misremembering emotions can promote such goal-directed behavior as authoring articles, climbing mountains, conducting research, having children, and raising children. They also explain how incomplete and inaccurate affective memories also can facilitate people’s abilities to cope with ongoing challenges. A study by a leading marriage and parenting expert, John Gotmman, found that even implicit measures of couples’ affective memories of their marriage can predict divorce better than observational measures of marital problem solving and better than self-reports of current marital satisfaction that can be informed by explicit memories.


It is important to realize that emotional memories record ongoing relationships between past events and people’s goals implies that such emotional records are more accurate if people update them based upon their current goals and beliefs. As As Levine, Safer, and Lench nicely state it, "[i]n the same way, updating a map when new roads are built makes it more accurate." The chief purpose of people's memory could be to guide their future behavior instead of maintaining a faithful record of their past.

Neuroscientists Larry Cahill, James McGaugh, and Elizabeth Parker discovered that a small number of people are able to recall detailed moment-to-moment events from their entire lives. They proposed the term hyperthymesia to describe such extremely superior autobiographical memory. Actress Marilu Henner, who is perhaps best known for her starring role as Elaine O'Connor-Nardo on the popular television program Taxi, is the only one of (at that time) six Americans diagnosed to have such nearly endless memories, that has children or is married (her current marriage is her third), suggesting that having a good relationship might be related to being able to forget and so lose some arguments. Marilu Henner is a technical consultant for a new television program called Unforgettable, starring Poppy Montgomery as Carrie Wells, a New York City police detective, who utilizes her hyperthymesia, to help solve homicide cases.



Psychologist Pascal Boyer suggests that "distorted" memories can be part of a highly efficient and functional biological system that balances costs of information storage and retrieval of past experiences against benefits of utilizing memories to improve present fitness-enhancing decision-making. Incomplete and selective memories, viewed as beliefs about past occurrences, can thus be seen to be particular examples of functionally adaptive misbeliefs generally. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a professor of internet governance and regulation, explains how forgetting played important roles during the history of humankind, ranging from facilitating forgiveness that provides opportunities for second chances to helping people make sound decisions that are not encumbered by their past. He also analyzes how digital technology makes it possible to end forgetting and illustrates problems from and solutions to everlasting digital memory.


As behaviorial economist George Loewenstein and philosopher Jon Elster observed, the moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham realized that much of people’s experiences of pleasure and pain are due not from direct experiences, but instead from indirect contemplation of experiences in their past or future, that is, from anticipations and memories of experiences. Differences in how people remember versus experience affect in general and happiness in particular poses a fundamental normative question of which one, if either, is more important. In a fascinating article, organizational psychologist and management scholar Robert Sutton hypothesizes that visitors to Disneyland are likely to remember and report positive bygone feelings they experienced during their visits, but forget and fail to report negative bygone feelings they experienced during their visits. Sutton offers these well-documented psychological forces to explain such inaccurate reconstruction of people’s emotions: (1) a Pollyanna effect, (2) editing of memories to maintain cognitive consistency, and (3) pressures of social norms in reconstructing past feelings. Sutton further hypothesizes this inclination to remember pleasant feelings but forget unpleasant emotions is accentuated by people taking photographs during their visits. Sutton also suggests that somewhat inaccurate positive anticipations, experiences, and memories of visits to Disneyland and most other events in life can be healthy and self-fulfilling. Recently, Disneyland and Walt Disney World launched a "Let the Memories Begin" marketing campaign to feature vacationers’ photographs and videos in television commercials and social media. Memories and photographs of moments in our lives are intimately related. As novelist Milan Kundera states about how people remember love affairs, "memory does not make films, it makes photographs."

Kahneman believes that when people think of the future, they do not usually think of lived experiences, but instead think of anticipated memories. He therefore believes that people actually choose between memories of experiences as opposed to between actual experiences. He sums up his viewpoint quite nicely with a compelling metaphor about one’s remembering self tyrannically dragging along one’s experiencing self through experiences that one’s experiencing self does not require and had no voice in choosing. As psychologist Frederic Bartlett states, "the past is continually being re-made, reconstructed in the interests of the present."

Just yesterday psychologists Andrew Steptoe and Jane Wardle published an empirical study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finding that positive affect self-reported by 3,853 people aged 52 to 79 years old at different times over a single day utilizing ecological momentary assessment, which is a technique for measuring experienced well-being, predicted the rates of death five years later after controlling for demograhic factors, depressed mood, health behaviors, health indicators, and negative affect. In other words, people's experiences of positive emotions on just one day predicted their survival rates five years later! Of course a lot more future research can and should follow up this one study. But, the relationship between happiness and mortality has to be quite robust given the relatively small sample size of people and observations just being on a single day. This latest study contributes to an already growing body of research sugegsting that positive affect is correlated with benefical health-relevant cardiovascular, inflammatory, and neuroendocrine outcomes.

I have written a working paper which advocates that law and policy should care more about people's experiences than memories if and when those experiences result in chronic health or stress consequences that either (1) societies care about more than individuals do (because of externalities, public bads, or public goods) or (2) individuals also care about, but were unaware of, do not remember, or are unable to act upon (due to self-control problems). My draft analyzes examples of chronic health or stress effects from such experiences as dense and long commutes, discrimination, unhealthy eating, lack of regular physical exercise, sedentary behavior, and poor or no financial/retirement planning.

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