Beyond Comfort:

Notes from a Psychologist on sabbatical.

What do vacations, breakups and colonoscopies all have in common?

Mon, 01/23/2017 - 16:26 -- Thibault

The late Zen Master Albert Low told me several times in private interviews when talking about spiritual practice: If you are going to walk, walk. Don’t wobble. How much of your time do you wobble out of life and feel guilty about it?

The last two articles about identifying values and discovering your biorhythms should have provoked you some ambivalence as to how you make decisions. If it didn’t, then lets go deeper into the rabbit hole in our understanding of the human situation and how we miss opportunities to live a valued life.

Broken new-year’s promises anyone?

Being human, we often pride ourselves on being rational, but at the same time, many of our decisions are unconsciously made. We are often go on autopilot and tend to act out on hunches, habits, familiar feelings and blind desires. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it just gives us little opportunity to question whether this is a good decision or is actually reinforcing the behavior that we so want to change. What happens then, is that we often find ourselves in the middle of a tug of war between blind desires and urges, in contrast to directing ourselves continuously towards a life that is meaningful and important.

You’re Not Alone.

The reason I believe that you are not alone in your wobbling is because it is built in our way of seeing the world. We all wobble.  Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize for economics for his work on human judgment and decision-making. His book, “Think Fast, Think Slow” presents research that suggests we often make decisions not out of rationality or what we think is necessarily the best for us, but out of unconscious biases that may or may not reflect what we truly want. The blind spot in our decision-making is not the fault of a selected few but is hardwired into our brains.

Experiential Self vs. The Remembering Self.

In his book, he describes two systems of thinking. If we want a visual image to better understand these ways of thinking, we can picture ourselves as a two headed monster on one body. These two heads, or ways of thinking, influence each other and sometimes find themselves in conflict with one another. Kahneman calls these two heads: the experiential self and the remembered self.

The experiential self bases itself on immediate experience. It is automatic, fast, intuitive and involuntary. When the experiential self is talking, we often use the terms “It came naturally, I know it in my gut or in my heart”. It is the feeling self in the present moment. You feel great after a workout or you feel lousy on a rainy Monday morning. When we act on it, it is the behaviors that happen automatically and spontaneously. You walk down the street, and without consciously noticing; you skillfully sidestep a pile of dog poop planted on the sidewalk.

The remembering self, on the other hand, is the conscious self. It articulates judgments, makes conscious decisions and rationalizes feelings. It makes up stories in order to confirm judgments made out of a particular situation. You sideswipe the dog poo and keep walking when you realize you may have left the stove on. What happens at that very moment? For most, if the realization is important enough, you will stop and think about it. That stopping and thinking is part of the remembering self. It is slow and calculated thinking and therefore tends to take up energy. Both selves talk to each other in their own respective languages. The art of living can be reduced as to knowing the intricate dance between the two selves. When is it appropriate to be on autopilot and rely on instincts rather than rely on rational judgments?

Here’s one way to see how these systems of thinking can affect our lives. The question that Kahneman asks at the end of his book: Would you go through all the trouble of going on a perfect vacation if at the very end, you would forget everything? Think about it, would you pay for that vacation to climb a mountain, learn a new sport, discover a new culture or relax on a majestic beach if at the very end of it all, when you step home, you forget everything? Complete amnesia. What would you do, would you still go or would you do something different?

Part of the reason why we do what we do is to create memories in order to develop our sense of self. The stories we create are important and actually further influence how we make decisions. The remembering self promotes a certain level of accountability and coherence in our behavior. However, our narratives can also trap us; I often hear clients tell me when I encourage them to do something different: “But that’s not me, I don’t do that normally.”

The Peak-End Rule

How we create memories is also distorted by what psychologist call cognitive biases. A cognitive bias is a way of thinking that deviates from rationality in order to come to a quick judgment. Cognitive biases are greatly affected by our experiencial self and also influence our remembered self. One of these biases is called the peak-end rule. The peak-end rule states that people judge their experiences based on what is felt during the peak moments or how it turns out at the end instead of the sum of all moments of experience.  So the memory of the great view on the top of the mountain out weights all the pain and suffering of climbing. And when I climb down the mountain, if I don’t sprain my ankle at the very end, it will be considered a beautiful trip. Touring musicians forget the drudgery of traveling, waiting on tour, interviews, etc, for the 90-minute show they will play (peak experience).

Think about it, you have this great relationship for 6 years, and then for about four months, the relationship goes sour. You find out in the last two weeks that your partner cheated on you. The majority of people will not spontaneously remember all the good that came out of the 6 years but will tend to focus first on the last two weeks (end rule). All the good moments will probably be tainted by what happened in the last two weeks.

What is true of your breakups and vacations is also true for colonoscopies. Colonoscopies are mostly remembered by the intensity of the experience (peak experience of pain) and the last 15 minutes (end rule). Research has shown that if you want somebody to feel more comfortable about his or her experience of having a colonoscopy, you need to spend more time having it so that you minimize peak experiences. And if for the last 15 minutes, you take it out slowly by taking more time by minimizing bursts of pain, patients will be happier for it.

I think the peak-end rule also explains why people can often accept moderate and continuous levels of suffering. It is easy to get out of a bad relationship if there are peaks of suffering. It is much more difficult if the relationship is flat and the pain is blunted. Similarly, some people stay out of committed relationships because they are always hunting for that peak experience and can’t tolerate the periods of boredom that a committed relationship sometimes passes through.

Knowing this, you can better understand why it is not so easy to identify and act on your deepest values. You might be chasing or avoiding peak experiences and forgetting the moment-to-moment decisions that will reinforce new and wanted behaviors. However, at the end of your life, you will not look back on these feelings but on what you did. When people die, they don’t tend to talk about what they felt but what they did. 

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