How do colonoscopies relate to career change?

This fascinating 20 minute talk by Daniel Kahneman on happiness and the difference between the ‘experiencing self’ and the ‘remembering self’ has so many thought-provoking ideas in it, but I’m just going to focus on one. And I’m going to try to link having a camera inserted where the sun doesn’t shine to working with people who are changing career and a narrative approach.


Try not to think about it

Kahneman talks about research that was done on patients undergoing a colonoscopy. They were asked to rate their discomfort moment-by-moment during the procedure. Later, they were asked to rate how uncomfortable they found the procedure in total.

It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish

Some of the patients had a fairly quick colonoscopy and others had a more extended examination. If you’ve ever had such an examination, you will know that the horrible part is the insertion of the scope and the manoeuvring. The longer it goes on, the less distressing it feels — you get used to it. In the research they found that, although the patients who endured the longer procedure obviously recorded more moment-by-moment discomfort in total, their overall evaluation of the experience afterwards was less negative than the patients who had suffered the shorter intervention. The short-intervention patients, in looking back on the experience, had in their minds a story which began and ended in lots of discomfort. Whereas, the long-intervention patients had a story which started in exactly the same amount of distress as the other patients, but their story ended with relatively less suffering. Their evaluation of the whole experience was heavily influenced by the ending.

Manipulating memories by focusing on endings

One immediate association I made was with the primacy and recency effects which I sometimes talk about during interview coaching or presentation skills training. I advise people to engage in retrospective structuring and summarising for their slightly muddled interview responses (and talks) because the interviewers are more likely to remember the earlier bits of the answer within the framework presented at the end. [It’s also a useful tip for any guidance or coaching practitioners to do some good structured summarising near the end of a discussion to leave the client with a stronger impression of the session’s overall usefulness.]

Changing the nature of the story

When Kahneman began talking about the ‘remembering self’ being the storytelling bit of the brain it reminded me of some interesting experiences with clients of the impact of narrative framing.

When people come to discuss career change they are, obviously, not likely to be very happy with their working lives. At the moment they are telling you the story of their career it has an unhappy ending. As the colonoscopy illustration shows, the ending of a story has a strong impact on the overall evaluation of an experience. One upshot of this negative overall evaluation is that it seems to be much easier for people to focus on what they don’t want from a future career than what they do want. Even when they talk about positive things they want to get from future careers, underneath is often a reaction against negative things from their past. People will rarely think about the good things they want to preserve from their past experiences unless I prompt them.

One way I have found of doing this is by getting them to break the story into chunks. So, sometimes I will say ‘Tell me the story of your current job up until the point just before you realised things were going wrong,’ or ‘Tell me a story from your experience that had a positive outcome.’ By manipulating the end point of the story I can sometimes change their evaluation mode from negative to positive. This can balance out the evaluation and increase the likelihood that the next career decision will be made on a more complete set of factors than just a desire to escape the bad stuff.

It occurs to me that a similar result might be achieved by getting them to project the end of the story into the future, to a time when they are happy and satisfied. Again it might put the dominant negative evaluations of the present in a wider context. I haven’t tried this yet but would be interested to hear from anyone who has.

  • Have you had experiences of people evaluating the whole story based on how it ended?
  • If you listened to the rest of the talk, what other implications do you think the ‘experiencing self’ and the ‘remembering self’ have for careers work?
  • Have you had a colonoscopy and, if so, how would you rate the experience?

Related post: Storyboarding


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  1. #1 by Jane C Woods on 3 March 2010 - 13:30

    Excellent post! I love the analogy of having a pain in the a**e with not liking your job! Thanks.

    • #2 by David Winter on 3 March 2010 - 19:58

      Rather bizarrely, that way of looking at it hadn’t occurred to me!

  2. #3 by Ghislaine on 3 March 2010 - 15:45

    How absolutely fascinating! A lot of my work is with people who are in this ‘negative’ position and this sort of technique to try and get them to draw positives from it will be very useful! So many people do focus on what they don’t want and can’t see past the bad, also not being able to see past a current ‘nightmare boss’ is a huge issue for them. How often does ‘changing the ending’ work for you?

    • #4 by David Winter on 3 March 2010 - 19:55

      Welcome Ghislaine

      As with any technique it works some of the time but not others. It really depends on the client.

      Usually, I will try the direct approach first – just asking them about the positive things. This sometimes works.

      If it doesn’t I may try the ‘changing the ending’ approach.

      If that doesn’t work, I might try a bit of gentle challenging through immediacy – describe their behaviour and talk about the consequences (‘I’ve noticed that you’re been talking mainly about the negative things you want to avoid and when I try to get you to talk about the positive things you slip back very quickly to the negative things again. Have you noticed that? Why do you think that is?’ etc.)

      Sometimes, if their experience has been quite traumatic and it is quite fresh in their minds. The techniques don’t work at all. The person may not be ready to move on. They are still processing the hurt. In those cases, I have to resign myself to being a sponge for the negative feelings they need to get off their chest.

      Have you come across any other techniques for dealing with this?

  3. #5 by Laura on 4 March 2010 - 10:22

    Very interesting. Well worth watching the attached video – what a great speaker. Will make me reconsider lots of things – from how I end guidance interviews to the holidays I choose!
    Thank you

  4. #7 by Andrea H on 11 March 2010 - 18:47

    Hi David
    I’m no longer surprised colonoscopies associated with Careers work……innovative and thought provoking to say the least đŸ™‚

    Your point about changing someone’s evaluation mode made me think about a client who we see who tends to catastrophize. He came in at 4pm one afternoon to use the PCs and I was generally just saying hello, what was going on with him etc. He then started to offload a lot of negatives and how it was ALL going wrong, so after listening to him, I said, “You’ve got an hour before we shut and you’ve made a decision today to come in here to do something. What 1 thing do you think you can do that will make a difference within an hour?”. He then started reeling off at least 3 things that he could do in that hour which would have a possible positive outcome for him. I then challenged him to do those and left him to it.
    I call it funnelling because I see him panicking about the ‘big picture’ and to help him in that short space of time, not even in a guidance appointment, I got him to funnel the big picture away (just for the moment), and get to the smaller picture – the here and now. My client, faced with his big picture negatives, was able to funnel that away to concentrate on the here and now. We’ll see him again, I know, but right there and then he was able to focus on doing something positive by looking just 1 hour ahead.

    By the way, I was wondering when are you starting to sell Theories and Models T Shirts, Mugs, hoodies etc ….?! And if you were a phrase on such a T shirt, what would you be?….that’s something to ponder yourself. I’ve got a mug which states ‘Beyond Help’ – one I hasten to add I never bring in to work!

  5. #8 by David Winter on 12 March 2010 - 13:24

    Thanks Andrea
    That’s a nice example of changing a client’s narrative frame. The story he was telling himself was a big scale narrative about failure in the past implying inevitable and insurmountable difficulties in the future.
    You changed the story to a smaller time-scale and focus on the immediate future.

    My colleague Liz Wilkinson says if you can break the client’s big, scary problem into several smaller, less scary problems then you have done 90% of your work.

    I will look into merchandising possibilities.

  6. #9 by Ian on 12 March 2010 - 15:48

    How about, for the t-shirts – ‘I’m a careers adviser – I am definitely beyond help’ (with obvious kudos to Andrea H)?

  7. #10 by David Winter on 15 March 2010 - 09:30

    I was thinking more along the lines of:

    ‘I’m a careers adviser…in theory’



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