Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Peak-End Rule, The Process, and Training

   A story is about significant events and memorable moments, not about time passing. Duration neglect is normal in a story, and the ending often defines its character. The same core features appear in the rules of narratives and in the memories of colonoscopies, vacations, and films. This is how the remembering self works: it composes stories and keeps them for future reference.
   It is not only at the opera that we think of life as a story and wish it to end well. When we hear about the death of a woman who had been estranged from her daughter for many years, we want to know whether they were reconciled as death approached. We do not care only about the daughter's feelings - it is the narrative of the mother's life that we wish to improve. Caring for people often takes the form of concern for the quality of their stories, not for their feelings. Indeed, we can be deeply moved even by events that change the stories of people who are already dead. We feel pity for a man who died believing in his wife's love for him, when we hear that she had a lover for many years and stayed with her husband only for his money. We pity the husband although he had lived a happy life. We feel the humiliation of a scientist who made an important discovery that was proved false after she died, although she did not experience the humiliation. Most important, of course, we all care immensely for the narrative of our own life and very much want it to be a good story, with a decent hero.
   The psychologist Ed Diener and his students wondered whether duration neglect and the peak-end rule would govern evaluations of entire lives. They used a short description of the life of a fictitious character named Jen, a never-married woman with no children, who died instantly and painlessly in an automobile accident. In one version of Jen's story, she was extremely happy throughout her life (which lasted either 30 or 60 years), enjoying her work, taking vacations, spending time with her friends and on her hobbies. Another version added 5 extra years to Jen's life, who now died either when she was 35 or 65. The extra years were described as pleasant but less so than before. After reading a schematic biography of Jen, each participant answered two questions: "Taking her life as a whole, how desirable do you think Jen's life was?" and "How much total happiness or unhappiness would you say that Jen experienced in her life?"
  The results provided clear evidence of both duration neglect and a peak-end effect. In a between-subjects experiment (different participants saw different forms), doubling the duration of Jen's life had no effect whatsoever on the desirability of her life, or on judgements of the total happiness that Jen experienced. Clearly, her life was represented by a prototypical slice of time, not as a sequence of time slices. As a consequence, her "total happiness" was the happiness of a typical period in her lifetime, not the sum (or integral) of happiness over the duration of her life. 
...The frenetic picture taking of many tourists suggests that storing memories is often an important goal, which shapes both the plans for the vacation and the experience of it. The photographer does not view the scene as a moment to be savored but as a future memory to be designed. Pictures may be useful to the remembering self - though we rarely look at them for very long, or as often as we expected, or even at all - but picture taking is not necessarily the best way for the tourist's experiencing self to enjoy a view. 
From Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, pp. 387-389

If you are an athlete training for elite competition, then the "peak-end rule" probably applies. However, if only the PR, peak, or placing matters, and we don't enjoy the process, we are fighting a losing game.  We can train our whole life, but at some point, our competitive days end, and so do the days for picture taking... Not to say that hard numbers don't matter, but a more qualitative approach can help us find existing and meaningful value when traditional metrics cannot.

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