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.
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