Archive for the ‘Memory’ Tag

Errors in Remembering


To deceive is to weave a tangle web with negative and positive consequences. One of the great difficulties with successfully telling lies may be remembering to whom we have told which story. Although, memory researchers have generally ignored this problem, researchers recently looked at remembering to whom we have told information – what is called destination memory. They found that remembering to whom we have told a fact is more difficult than remembering from whom we have learned a fact. For memory, ‘to’ is harder than ‘from’. Destination memory may be related to a host of real world memory problems, including the tangled web of lies. When describing destination memory, it is likened to source memory, that is to say, memory of where, when, and from whom we learned something. It is argued that both involve memory for the episodic content of an experience.

In contrast to destination memory, source memory is well studied. We know that source memory fades more rapidly than memory for the knowledge learned on a particular occasion. For example, someone can look familiar to me even when I cannot recall where and when I met them. Destination memory may explain one stereotype of older Americans – the tendency to repeat the same stories over and over again. Source memory is related to development and aging. Typically, researchers have found that young children and older adults experience more difficulty tracking the source of information they learn. Since destination memory shares a reliance on episodic memory with source memory, one suspect it will also display age differences. Tracking destination memory may become more difficult as people age. Older adults may know that they want to share a story with you, but may not be able to remember that they have already told you the story.

Lying may present a particular problem for destination memory. People are more self focused when planning and sharing information than when receiving information. The additional self focus means less focus on, and thus less memory of, one’s conversation partner. Telling lies may involve a lot of self focus as one tries to construct a believable story. If one tells different stories to different people, then remembering who heard which version is going to be hard. Keeping things straight will be simpler and so stick to the truth. We may repeat ourselves, but we won’t confuse which audience heard which story. Of course, you could choose to stick with a single misleading story. You could tell everyone the same lie. As the pathological liars do.

William James has something interesting to say both about memory distortion in general as well as about how inaccurate memories are related to the self. In his classic Principles of Psychology, James made an explicit link between memory errors and the self. Alterations of memory are either losses or false recollections. In either case the ‘me’ is changed. False memories are by no means rare occurrences in most of us, and, whenever they occur, they distort the consciousness of the ‘me.’ Most people, probably, are in doubt about certain matters ascribed to their past. They may have seen them, may have said them, done them or they may only have dreamed or imagined they did so.

According to James, then, errors in remembering not only produce memory distortions but also result in self-distortions. Knowing whether we actually did something or only dreamed or imagined it clearly has significance for how we understand both our autobiographical history and our general sense of self. When we mistake a dream or a fantasy for an actual event in the past, we are committing a classic misattribution error with the potential to change how we view ourselves and our relationships with others. One striking illustration of how a distorted memory can result in a distorted or even false—self comes from an extreme case of misattribution following brain damage. Moscovitch in 1989, described the interesting case, who sustained damage to the ventromedial aspects of the frontal lobes (the basal forebrain area) as a result of a burst aneurysm. The location of the brain damage caused patient to be amnesic for previous events, rendering the patient unable to recall past experiences. More interestingly, however, the patient filled in the gaps in memory by confabulating.

Although, patient has manufactured what appears to be a false self, he still has the general sense of his past right, but he was wrong on one critical dimension, the temporal context of his past. He lacked appropriate information regarding the relative timing of life events, and therefore misattributed some key experiences that have occurred over the past thirty years to the past four years. In addition, the patient also had a defective ability to monitor the appropriateness of information. Clearly, this patient represents an extreme case of misattribution.

Recently, more prosaic forms of misattribution in the laboratory were examined, to help explain both the extreme cases, as well as how misattribution may be relevant to understanding’s one’s own past—and hence, self—more generally. The neuropsychological and neuroimaging data suggest that the hippocampus may be involved in making semantic or associative information available to support memory for the general gist of previously studied items. Although the studies used word lists in laboratory settings, it is nonetheless interesting to think about the potential role of the hippocampus for the larger issue of memory and self. Clearly, a brain region that plays a role in memory for the gist of the past should contribute importantly to the maintenance of a sense of a consistent self over time. However, because neuroimaging investigations of the self have only recently begun, we can only speculate at the present time about the critical role played by the hippocampus in maintaining a sense of self.


 

Understand and Experience the Memory



If we remembered everything we should on most occasions, then it is as ill off as if we remembered nothing. It is often said that a person is the sum of their memories. Your experience is what makes you who you are. Despite this, memory is generally poorly understood, which is why many people say they have bad memories. That is partly because the analogies we have to hand—like that of computer memory—are not helpful. Human memory is vastly more complicated and quirky than the memory residing in our laptops.

Everyone has experienced the frustration of not being able to recall a fact from memory. It could be someone’s name, the French for ‘town hall’ or where the car is parked. So it seems obvious that memories decay, like fruit going off. But the research tends not to support this view. Instead, many researchers think that memory has a limitless capacity. Everything is stored in brain but, without rehearsal, memories become harder to access. This means it is not the memory that is ‘going off’ it is the ability to retrieve it. But what on earth is the point of a brain that remembers everything but can’t recall most of it?

The idea that forgetting help you learn seems counter intuitive; however, look at it this way. Imagine if you created a brain that could remember and recall everything. When this amazing brain was trying to remember where it parked the car, it would immediately bring to mind all the car parks it had ever seen and then it would have to sort through that lot. Obviously, the only one that is of interest is the most recent. This is generally true of most of our memories. Recent events are usually much more important than ones that happened a long time ago.

To make your super-brain quicker and more useful in the real world, you have to build in some system for discounting old and useless information. In fact, of course, we all have one of these super-brains with a discounting system and that we call it ‘forgetting’. That is why forgetting helps you learn. As less relevant information becomes inaccessible, we are naturally left with the information that is most important to our daily survival.

There is another side to the fact that memories do not decay. That is the idea that although memories may become less accessible, they can be revived. Even things that you have long been unable to recall are still there, waiting to be woken. Experiments have shown that even information that has long become inaccessible can still be revived. Indeed it is then re-learned more quickly than new information. This is like the fact that you never forget how to ride a bike, but it doesn’t just apply to motor skills, it also applies to memories.

Although, it is a fundamental of memory, the idea that recall alters memories seems intuitively wrong. How can recalling a memory change it? Well, just by recalling a memory, it becomes stronger in comparison to other memories. Let us run this through an example. Say you think back to one particular birthday from childhood and you recall getting a Lego spaceship. Each time you recall that fact, the other things you got for your birthday that day become weaker in comparison. The process of recall, then, is actually actively constructing the past, or at least the parts of your past that you can remember. This is only the beginning. False memories can potentially be created by this process of falsely recalling the past. Indeed, psychologists have experimentally implanted false memories. This raises the fascinating idea that effectively we create ourselves by choosing which memories to recall.

The fact that the simple act of recall changes memory means that it is relatively unstable. But people tend to think that memory is relatively stable. We forget that we forgot and so we think we won’t forget in the future what we now know. What this means is that students, in particular, vastly underestimate how much effort will be required to commit material to memory.

You have an idea that is so great you think it’s impossible you’ll ever forget it. So you don’t bother writing it down. Within ten minutes you have forgotten it and it never comes back. Researchers see the same thing in the lab. In one study, people learned pairs of words like ‘light-lamp’, then are asked to estimate how likely it is they will be able to answer ‘lamp’ when later given the prompt ‘light’. They are massively over-confident and the reason is this foresight bias. When they get the word ‘light’ later all kinds of other things come to mind like ‘bulb’ or ‘shade’ and the correct answer is not nearly as easy to recall as they predicted.

We feel clever when we recall something instantly and stupid when it takes ages. But in terms of learning, we should feel the exact reverse. When something comes to mind quickly, to be precise, we do no work to recall it and no learning occurs. When we have to work hard to bring it to consciousness, something cool happens; we learn. When people’s memories are tested, the more work they have done to construct, or re-construct, the target memory, the stronger the memory eventually becomes. This is why proper learning techniques always involve testing, because just staring at the information is not good enough and learning needs effortful recall.

Have you ever noticed that when you learn something in one context, like the classroom, it becomes difficult to recall when that context changes? This is because learning depends heavily on how and where you do it. It depends on who is there, what is around you and how you learn. It turns out that in the long-term people learn information best when they are exposed to it in different ways or different contexts. When learning is highly context-dependent, it does not transfer well or stick as well over the years.

If you want to learn to play tennis, is it better to spend one week learning to serve, the next week the forehand, the week after the backhand, and so on? Or should you mix it all up with serves, forehands and backhands every day? It turns out that for long-term retention, memories are more easily recalled if learning is mixed up. This is just as true for both motor learning, like tennis, as it is for declarative memory, like what is the capital of Venezuela. The trouble is that learning like this is worse to start off with. If you practice your serve then quickly switch to the forehand, you ‘forget’ how to serve. So you feel things are going worse than if you just practice your serve over-and-over again. In the long-run, this kind of mix-and-match learning works best. One explanation for why this works is called the reloading hypotheses. Each time we switch tasks, we have to ‘reload’ the memory. The process of reloading strengthens the learning.

The practical upshot of these facts about memory is that we often underestimate how much control we have over our own memory. For example, people tend to think that some things are, by their nature, harder to learn, and so they give up. However, techniques like using different contexts, switching between tasks and strenuous reconstruction of memories can all help boost retention. People also tend to think that the past is fixed and gone; it cannot be changed. But how we recall the past and think about it can be changed. Recalling memories in different ways can help us re-interpret the past and set us off on a different path in the future. For example, studies have shown that people can crowd out painful negative memories by focusing on more positive ones.

All in all, our memory is not as poor as we might imagine. It may not work like a computer, but that is what makes it all the more fascinating to understand and experience.


Credits: Jeremy Dean

Coming in for a Landing in Memory of Spring!


Image Credits: Darrell Hargett

Posted January 6, 2013 by dranilj1 in Photography

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Cognitive Psychology

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The term cognitive psychology came into use with the publication of the book Cognitive Psychology by Ulric Neisser in 1967. Cognitive Psychology revolves around the notion that if we want to know what makes people tick then we need to understand the internal processes of their mind. Cognition literally means “knowing”. In other words, psychologists from this approach study cognition which is ‘the mental act or process by which knowledge is acquired.’

Cognitive psychology focuses on the way humans process information, looking at how we treat information that comes in to the person; what behaviorists would call stimuli, and how this treatment leads to responses. In other words, they are interested in the variables that mediate between stimulus/input and response/output. Cognitive psychologists study internal processes including perception, attention, language, memory and thinking.

v Several factors were important in this:

v Dissatisfaction with the behaviorist approach in its simple emphasis on external behavior rather than internal processes

v The development of better experimental methods

v Comparison between human and computer processing of information

The cognitive approach began to revolutionize psychology in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, to become the dominant approach that is to say perspective in psychology by the late 1970s. Interest in mental processes had been gradually restored through the work of Piaget and Tolman. Other factors were important in the early development of the cognitive approach. For example, dissatisfaction with the behaviorist approaches in its simple emphasis on behavior rather than internal processes and the development of better experimental methods. But it was the arrival of the computer that gave cognitive psychology the terminology and metaphor it needed to investigate the human mind. The start of the use of computers allowed psychologists to try to understand the complexities of human cognition by comparing it with something simpler and better understood that is to say an artificial system such as a computer.

Cognitive Revolution

Cognitive Approach Summary

Key Features

Methodology

· Mediational Processes

· Information Processing

· Computer Analogy

· Introspection (Wundt)

· Nomothetic (studies the group)

· Schema

· Machine Reductionism

· Lab Experiments

· Introspection (Wundt)

· Memory Psychology

· Interviews (Kohlberg, Piaget)

· Case Studies (KF, HM )

· Observations (Piaget)

· Computer Modeling

Basic Assumptions

Areas of Application

· Cognitive psychology is a pure science, based mainly on laboratory experiments.

· Behavior can be largely explained in terms of how the mind operates, i.e. the information processing approach.

· The mind works in a way similar to a computer: inputting, storing and retrieving data.

· Mediational processes occur between stimulus and response.

· Moral Development (Kohlberg)

· Eyewitness Testimony

· Memory

· Forgetting

· Selective Attention

· Perception

· Child Development (Piaget)

· Language Acquisition

· Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

· Learning Styles (Kolb)

· Information Processing

· Cognitive Interview

· Education (Vygotsky, Bruner)

· Face Recognition (Bruce and Young)

Strengths

Limitations

· Scientific

· Highly applicable (e.g. therapy, EWT)

· Combines easily with approaches: behaviorism + Cog = Social Learning Biology + Cog = Evolutionary Psy

· Many empirical studies to support theories

· Ignores biology (e.g. testosterone)

· Experiments – low ecological validity

· Humanism – rejects scientific method

· Behaviorism – can’t objectively study unobservable behavior

· Introspection is subjective

· Machine reductionism

Evaluation of the Cognitive Approach

Skinner criticizes the cognitive approach as he believes that only external stimulus – response behavior should be studied as this can be scientifically measured. Therefore, mediation processes (between stimulus and response) do not exist as they cannot be seen and measured. Skinner continues to find problems with cognitive research methods, namely introspection (as used by Wundt) due to its subjective and unscientific nature.

Carl Rogers believes that the use of laboratory experiments by cognitive psychology have low ecological validity and create an artificial environment due to the control over variables. Rogers emphasizes a more holistic approach to understanding behavior.

The information processing paradigm of cognitive psychology views that minds in terms of a computer when processing information. However, there are important difference between humans and computers. The mind does not process information like a computer as computers don’t have emotions or get tired like humans. Behaviorism assumes that people are born a blank slate (tabula rasa) and are not born with cognitive functions like schemas, memory or perception. The cognitive approach does not always recognize physical (re: biological psychology) and environmental (re: behaviorism) factors in determining behavior.

True Nature Of Reality

Nature of Reality

I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste. Don’t think you understand It. On the other hand, don’t think you don’t understand It. It? What is It, a pronoun capitalized this way? What is It, pronounced with the kind of emphasis that communicates great significance? Alternatively, it is called the Great Matter, Enlightenment, Emptiness, Suchness. These are ways we refer to different aspects of It. When I write these words, what do you think to yourself? You probably think to yourself either that you don’t understand these things, “Wow, I wish I understood those things, maybe I will someday.” Or, perhaps, “I will probably never understand,” or when you hear these words you have a sense that you do understand these things, at least to some degree; the words conjure up for you a memory of an experience, a mind-state, an insight, or you think of images or sensations that you find comforting or inspiring. It is difficult to say which of these – a sense that we don’t understand, or a sense that we do understand – is more detrimental to spiritual practice.

Buddhist understanding – prajna paramita, the perfection of wisdom – is completely different from ordinary understanding. It is so different that even though it is here under our noses all the time, we miss It. Even though this Understanding is free and available, we revere Shakyamuni Buddha as a once-in-a-universe amazing person because he came to It without even having a teacher who pointed it out to him. This is the central teaching of Buddhism – that there is a kind of wisdom, a kind of insight, “which removes all suffering, and is true, not false.” The Buddha studied suffering – old age, disease, death, loss, dissatisfactions – and asked whether there was any way out of it. He was not the first to ask this question by any means. Almost every religion and social movement has tried to offer people a remedy, a way out, at least a mitigation of this human experience of suffering.

What the Buddha realized was, in a sense, its all how you relate to it. It’s all how you see it and understand your place in it. However, this is not about adopting some arbitrary positive outlook! Well, you could look at things that way and suffer, but if you adopt this philosophy or view things don’t look so bad…This is about seeing the true nature of reality. What is it that we see? A textbook answer would be something like, “we see that we, and all beings and things, are empty of inherent, enduring self-nature.” But this description is so inadequate to convey what we end up understanding. We could also say “we see that things-just-as-they-are, without the filter of our self-concern, are precious.” Or we could say “we see that there is only this moment, and this moment is free from suffering.”

Intellectual understanding of these descriptions or faithful belief in these descriptions, do not convey the release from suffering that the Buddha found. They must be personally and directly experienced for that to occur and once they are personally and directly experienced we are forever changed, but no experience in the past conveys lasting release from suffering either. Perhaps when you hear It – the Great Matter, Prajna Paramita (Transcendental Wisdom), Enlightenment, Emptiness, Suchness – you recall the spacious, unself-conscious feeling you experience in the wilderness. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of the “zone” you get into while doing a body practice or artistic activity. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of how vast space is, or how we are made up mostly of space, between our tiny atomic particles. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of how everything changes, so you can’t really draw a boundary around who you are. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of how it is impossible to trace all the causes and conditions and beings that brought you the meal you eat, and how dependent you are on all these different aspects of the universe. That’s not It.

Now, it would be good for all of us, myself included, if I left you with that message and shut up. But in the West, especially in Soto Zen, they explain things. It is the gentle way. It is so easy to be satisfied with just an intellectual understanding. It is so easy to fool ourselves that ours is not just an intellectual understanding – after all, if it is associated with emotions, it’s not just intellectual, right? It is so easy to allow what was once a real experience to devolve into a mere memory, a mere view. Most of us walk around with a largely intellectual understanding of It. As Dogen would say, we are “playing in the entrance way.” This is why Zen Masters through the ages have pulled out all the stops and done all kinds of strange things to try and wake their students up from their dreams. They yanked their students’ noses, offered riddles, put slippers on their heads. What is that about? Some kind of ridiculous code? A contest to see who was least inhibited? No. It says Right Here, Right Now, Do You See? In a sense it doesn’t matter what is said or done to express it; if both people can experience It, the arrows have met in mid-air. This is extremely important. There is no god in Buddhism that is going to condemn us or even be disappointed in us because we just play in the entrance way. But what a shame.

But thinking you do not understand is just as bad. When I think like that, I am here, and understanding is over there – in that [other person’s] head, or in the past, or in the future. This can be one of the most painful beliefs. It can also be one of the biggest obstacles. We are intimate with It every moment of every day. It is never anywhere else. We experience the perfection of wisdom when we stop looking anywhere else. When the Zen Master comes and challenges us, we answer her in kind. Perhaps we say, “Yes! Buddha caught the pillow!” Perhaps we throw the pillow back. Perhaps we laugh. But the challenge does not send us off in our minds to abstractions or memories, concepts, images, metaphors or teachings. We know the Buddha is nowhere else, and have dropped the self-concern that wonders how “I” relate to Buddha.

Being at home with oneself like that is an immense relief from suffering. We must struggle to understand, unfortunately there are no shortcuts. But what we do in that struggle is exhaust all of our dreams until finally there is no place left to go. Then we see It is something we have understood all along. We just didn’t know what kind of understanding to look for. And a final note – having answered the Zen master’s challenge one day does not mean we will be able to do so the next. This is not an understanding that is of any use to us in the past.

Peculiarities of Memory


In a recent  tai chi class, I was learning a new position that I had never done before or so I thought, when I was overcome not only by the feeling of having been in that exact same contorted position before, but by a sense of knowing exactly which sequence of movements would come next.  I was astonished when the sequence I thought should come next were exactly the movements that the instructor had us do next.  Was this what people mean when they say that they've experienced a “precognition” a feeling of an ability to see into the future? Is there a scientific explanation for this type of experience?

For many years, I have studied déjà vu, the feeling of having been somewhere or done something before despite knowing otherwise.  Researchers argue that déjà vu is often a memory phenomenon: One of its causes can be that a prior memory that we fail to call to mind is producing a sense of familiarity with the current situation.  A hotels.com commercial illustrates this: A man enters his hotel room for the first time and, wide-eyed and spooked, exclaims to his partner “I’ve been in this room before!” “What?” she says. “I’ve been here before.” he says.  She points out: “Uh, yeah.  You took the virtual tour on hotels.com.”

Occasionally, someone will approach me insisting that I have it wrong about déjà vu.  I have heard such comments as, “Déjà vu is not a mere memory for the past.  It is a precognition.  When I’ve had déjà vu, I have also known exactly what would happen next.”  People often insist with great confidence that their experiences of déjà vu have been accompanied by a sense of what will happen next.  It feels to them like a so-called precognition or an ability to see into the future.

Is it possible that the experience of déjà vu sometimes is accompanied by a sense of what will happen next?

In a recent article appearing in New Scientist, “Memory: Remembrance of Things to Come,” David Robson discusses a perspective on memory that is gaining traction in the field –that memory's adaptive purpose is not so much to allow us to consciously remember our pasts as to help us to navigate our futures.  Foresight may be the flipside of episodic memory.  Memory can help us to navigate our futures in many ways, ranging from our use of imagination and ability to be creative to simply allowing us to know what to do next or how to react in situations.

Being a form of memory, it is possible that déjà vu does the same.  If déjà vu itself results from an unrecalled, buried memory as in the hotels.com commercial, then it is possible that an accompanying sense of what will happen next comes from that same buried memory.  It is easy to imagine, for example, that the man in the hotels.com commercial might have had a sense about what was around the corner – a sense that was coming from his unrecalled memory of having taken the virtual tour.

My recent experience in tai chi class is a good example.  It was probably driven by my own unrecalled memory for the past.  Years ago, I practiced tai chi in a different place—a different town, a different state.  Then I gave it up for many years before recently taking it up again.  Though I could not recall ever having done this particular move before, chances are, I did and just don’t consciously remember.  Very likely, while learning this “new” move in my current yoga class, some memory for that move from years ago was being triggered, though not consciously called to mind.  It gave me not only a sense of having experienced the move before, but also an ability to sense what the next movements should be.  In short, the past experience, even though I failed to recall it, allowed me to predict the future without knowing why.

Steer Clear Of Dark And Unpleasant Endings

Dark And Unpleasant

Dark And Unpleasant



Living in the moment has benefits. While you’re in the middle of an enjoyable experience, you’re most likely to be tuned into the pleasures signaled by your body’s senses.  On the other hand, an experience marked by pain, mishaps, and inconvenience is one you’d just as soon get out of as soon as possible. Even so, after it’s over, many of us forget how badly we felt while it was going on. When pain outweighs pleasure, living in the moment isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. 

As it turns out, many of us are pretty likely to form biased memories of our experiences. The biases can go in both positive and negative directions. According to Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the “peak-end rule” is just one of many errors of judgment that affects the accuracy of our cognitive apparatus. An event makes its mark in our memories more by what happens at its end than at any prior point. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman points out many of the illogical features of our thought processes, including the contrast between our experiences in the moment and the way we remember them. 

Studies of happiness in the moment use a method called “experience sampling” in which people provide an instantaneous reading of how they are feeling. New technologies allow researchers to “ping” participants, asking them questions about what they’re doing right now, instead of having them provide recollections at some later point.  For example, German researcher Bettina Sonnenberg and her colleagues (2012) asked participants on their mobile phones to report the activities they were engaging in while pursuing their daily routines. The participants also completed standard survey questionnaires about their use of time. People’s reports through experience sampling were very consistent with surveys that they later completed regarding questions about the amount of time they spent at paid work. However, when participants were asked to estimate how much time they spent in less regular, predictable activities (such as errands or leisure), the survey reports diverged substantially from the moment-to-moment data they recorded through experience sampling. 

It’s no surprise that people rate their happiness while having a previous experience higher than they did while going through the experience itself. While you’re in the moment, you are aware of more of the “objective” features of the situation. You may be having your favorite meal, trying to unwind after a stressful day, and although you love the music itself, your mind strays to some of the unpleasant things that happened to you earlier. If we “ping” you to rate your happiness, your rating may reflect not the food you’re trying to enjoy, but the recall of what caused you to feel stressed. How many times, for example, have you watched a movie or TV show, absorbed in the action, only to have that little glimmer of emotional discomfort penetrate your consciousness? 

From this one brief example, let’s extrapolate to more significant experiences in your life. Perhaps it was a joyous family occasion that became marred, temporarily, by someone’s emotional outburst.  You really wanted to enjoy the event, but it wasn’t going completely as planned due to this one unfortunate incident. Over time, your memory of that event, according to Kahneman, will smooth out the rough edges and you’ll be left with an overall recollection that most likely will be a happy one. 

There are many advantages to remembering the past in a positive way.  For example, the older adults with higher levels of self-esteem and well-being are the ones who tend to focus on those positive events from their lives. Long-term happiness often depends on your forming a favorable narrative of your life. Those who ruminate over their failures, disappointments, and mistakes are not only less happy in the moment, but also risk experiencing chronic depression. 

With this background in mind, let’s take a closer look at one of the most intriguing results that Kahneman describes about the foibles of human memory. The peak-end rule states that the way an experience ends determines the happiness we ascribe to it. There are two classic experiments demonstrating the peak-end rule.  Kahneman and his associates showed, in 1993 that participants exposed to 30 seconds of 14 degree ice water (very cold!) rated the experience as more painful than participants exposed to 90 seconds of exposure to 60 seconds of 14 degree ice water plus 30 additional seconds of 15 degree ice water. In other words, participants found the 90 seconds of ice water exposure less painful than those exposed to 60 seconds of nearly equally cold water because the 90 seconds ended with exposure to a “warmer” stimulus. We will rate an experience as less painful, then, if it ends on a slightly less painful way. The “peak end” in this case was a one degree difference in water temperature. 

Many studies support the peak-end rule. People will prefer and even choose exposing themselves to more pain (objectively determined) if the situation ends with them feeling less pain.  Think about it this way. If you are having a tooth drilled, you’d find it was less painful if the dentist ends the procedure with some lightening of the drill’s intensity, even if the procedure is longer than it would otherwise be. Counterintuitive? Yes. Common? Definitely. 

We approach not only our experiences of pleasure and pain in this way, but also our acquisition of objects that we’re given as gifts. As reported in a review article by Dartmouth psychologist Amy Do and collaborators (2008), participants given free DVD’s were more pleased with the gifts if they received the more popular ones after the less popular ones, then if they received the exact same DVD’s in the opposite order. When it comes to pleasure, it’s all about the ending. 

In the happiness realm, we can come up with many similar analogies from everyday life. Think about the last time you took a trip that was hopelessly botched by a series of mishaps. While traveling somewhere on vacation or for the holidays, perhaps you were delayed by bad weather, traffic, or a combination of the two. While going through the moment, you could not have been any more miserable. An experience sample would have charted your unhappiness as off the charts. However, as bad as it was for a while, by the end you got where you were going and were even reasonably on time. All those bad memories during the moment now recede and you feel that you have no real reason to complain. Contrast that experience with a trip that starts out well but ends badly. You’ll rate that experience as one worthy of your most vociferous objections to anyone and everyone who will listen. 

What can you learn from the peak-end rule to help you boost your own happiness quotient, both long-term, and in the moment? Here are three take-away messages: 

1. Keep your mind focused on your goals during a negative experience. If things are going badly for you, try to find some redeeming aspect of the situation that will keep you motivated to get through it. If you are going through a painful procedure, medical or otherwise, look for ways to make it end on a better note than it began. 

2. Don’t let minor discomforts ruin your pleasurable experiences. Those longed-for occasions don’t always go perfectly. However, if you can keep the occasional disruptions from invading your mood, you’ll find the pleasure-to-pain ratio wins out in favor of pleasure. 

3. End your experiences on a “high note.” As Jerry Seinfeld so wisely pointed out many years ago, ending on a high note will always leave them “wanting more.” If you wait till the “bitter end” (to use another metaphor), the experience will be one you remember far more pleasantly. 

As Shakespeare says, “All’s Well that Ends Well.” Let’s hope that your endings are just as happy! 

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Posted September 10, 2012 by dranilj1 in COGNITION

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