I was listening to an interesting thought experiment the other day.
You wake up in a hospital, but you don’t quite remember why. The nurse informs you that you have been in an accident, but she has your details mixed up. She is not sure if:
- You already had a painful 4-hour operation yesterday.
- Or, you are due to have a painful 2-hour operation later today.
Both operations cannot be done with anaesthetic (well, this is a thought experiment…!) but you are injected with a drug at the end to make you forget this experience, which is akin to torture.
Obviously, you would rather be patient #1, who has already been through the operation instead of patient #2, who has an operation coming up.
But, this is actually quite strange if we think it through, and it showcases an interesting bias that we have towards discounting the past and front-loading shortly upcoming experiences, after which we start to steeply discount the value of future experiences.
If you were to be asked before any operation, you would obviously choose to have a two-hour operation one day later than a four-hour operation the day before.
However, this is not how our brains work. Instead of looking at the two options objectively, we have a tendency to over-weight the pain of the upcoming operation (which hasn’t even happened yet!) and under-weight the pain of the operation which we may have already gone through.
So, the answer to your choice depends on when we poll you, which is also strange. Surely we should always have consistent answers, or is it fine and natural to have different answers based on where you are in time?
The sunk cost fallacy is a similar cognitive bias – we have a tendency to over-weight past investments (or costs) and under-weigh future ones. This can lead to sub-optimal decision-making, as we are effectively discounting the importance of future experiences and fixating too much on the past.
If we were to look back on this choice of operations after the fact, we would also prefer the shorter operation a day later vs the longer one the day before. Or, perhaps we would not care at all because of the effect that the drug has on us — we forgot the entire experience anyway and we have no residual feelings about this extremely painful operation.
Which is an interesting thing to consider — if you forget that something has happened, is it like it never happened and it has no value? Does this mean that the value of any experience is in the memory that we create from it vs the actual experience that we have in that moment?
There are many things to consider here, but this thought experiment has certainly made me think about the role that memory plays in our valuation of experiences. What is even more interesting is that our memories are quite malleable. In essence, our lives are one long story that we craft, and we can reframe the narrative to our advantage.
This can be extremely useful when we have negative experiences in our lives. This can be as trivial as losing a football match to more serious happenings such as losing a loved one, being raped, or going through a painful divorce.
It is interesting to think about how we can change the story that we tell ourselves and in turn, change the way that we feel about certain experiences. Our memories are not static, and we have the power to change them. We can focus on the positive aspects of our lives and discount the negative experiences. In this way, we can change how we feel about our lives and perhaps even change the course of our lives.
This is something to think about the next time you are faced with a challenging experience — how can you reframe it in a way that is more positive and helpful for you? I am a firm believer that there is always a silver lining in any situation, no matter how bad, and at the very least, there are always ways in which a past situation could have been worse, and we can remain thankful that it didn’t.