BY MATTHEW HERBERT
It has become a habit of mine to look back at the end of each year and recall some of the best books I’ve read or simply reminisce about big events.
Thanks to advances in cognitive psychology, we now know that any kind of retrospective like this is a rigged game. Most humans, when we look back and evaluate certain kinds of experience over time, run an algorithm that Daniel Kahnemann calls the peak-end effect.
Here’s the peak-end effect. When we want to rate an experience qualitatively over time, we give undue weight to two data points–the peak, or most intense, experience of the series, and the last one. We don’t do what would seem to be intuitive–add the data points up and average them or simply compare them. Our judgment is locked as if by gravity onto the high point and the end point.
The experiment that brought this effect to light showed that subjects who were given the choice to repeat either (a) painful experience or (b) a slightly more painful experience that eased up at the end chose the latter. They chose more pain and–it is worth emphasizing the obvious–they thought they were making a good choice. It’s a classic case of humans being less than rational, proof that our thinking machines are made of meat, not silicon.
In his wonderful book Homo Deus, Noah Yuvel Harari makes a very big deal of the peak-end effect. For Harari, it proves that the human self is not a reliable narrator and, therefore, does not exist in the usual sense. Contrary to Freud (and common sense), there is no me at the center of me. It’s all just a tangle of algorithms made scattershot by the thousand and one evolutionary pressures that shaped our brains over the eons.
Maybe Harari is right. I’m not sure I’m ready to follow him all the way to his conclusion. It’s disorienting enough to admit that we lack the logical machinery to make good sense of our own inner life. I’m not sure I will join him in declaring the end of the self in toto. But if you are intrigued by the idea that we need super-human discipline to retrieve anything like an accurate memory of our lives up to this point, you might find pleasure in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. It is a catalogue of the defects that riddle human memory and a consideration of what they mean for our identity.
By the way, if you are a grad student in cognitive psychology and you’ve happened upon my blog, here is a free tip, for which you may thank me later. Just start reading In Search of Lost Time (especially Book One, Swann’s Way) and see if you don’t come up with three ideas for papers or experiments.
Proust was a highly disciplined phenomenologist, an expert observer of mental states. He didn’t just reflect flaccidly on what his thoughts, perceptions and memories felt like; he extrapolated from their detailed form how they had come to be produced and have their particular character. How, for example, could one memory automatically awaken a certain set of others while letting others lie dormant? (We now know some of the answers, which have to do with “lexical proximity,” but that’s a whole nother topic.) Proust’s keen inner eye anticipated many of the problems that Kahnemann and others would stake out in 20th-century cognitive psychology.
To a great extent, we can’t eradicate our biases. They’re too deeply entrenched by our evolutionary history. The cool, logical habits of mind that would make you a clever statistical reasoner today–say, an accurate appreciation of base rates, for example–would have made you dead 500,000 years ago. False positives kept us alive. Indeed our ancestors survived thanks to a glut of fearful, self-centered, short-term “reasoning” patterns that we still have with us today.
Like the peak-end effect. Women would have just stopped having babies had they been able to look back as statisticians and sum up the pain of pregnancy and childbirth. Luckily for Homo sapiens, though, the end effect of holding a baby in their arms skewed their memories and kept them in the reproduction game. (Among other things, of course.)
So we are stuck with our biased algorithms. We can strategize to correct for them, but usually only in very crude ways.
Today I will correct for my own peak-end effect in the crudest way possible, by indulging it openly and admitting error up front. Instead of trying to go around the peak-end effect, I will go into its breach.
I will always wonder whether 2018 was a good year. The peak data point was actually a nadir. We had to leave our home of 12 years, a place that had become exceptionally comfortable for everyone in my family. I’ve already recorded much of the grief at this loss, and there is no need to re-hash it or expand on it today. Let it rest.
But it’s true what sappy bourgeoisie time-servers like myself say: home is wherever your loved ones are. Even as I said an elegiac goodbye to our old home, I made a note of where the real meaning in my life comes from–from the people I live with, and for. We are all together and healthy in our new home, and that is, of course, everything that matters.
And what of my project to read America? I have already reported, it went off the rails. Instead of reading the many topics I laid out for myself at the start of the year, I read only a few, mostly in the form of novels. Typical. The best novels I read were The Grapes of Wrath, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral trilogy, and almost everything by Sinclair Lewis. John Updike’s Rabbit series was a prurient pleasure. I despise Updike’s message but can’t stop reading his clamorous stories of American delusionaries and halfwits.
I ended the year with an orgy of Kurt Vonnegut, re-reading Sirens of Titan, Player Piano, Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, Deadeye Dick, and, just this morning, Mother Night. This last one features American Neonazis who believe they are really good American patriots. Hi ho, as Vonnegut might have said, if he were alive today.
I’m tempted to say that Vonnegut is the greatest American novelist there is, but I know he’s not. That’s just the “end” part of my peak-end effect speaking. Vonnegut’s range is too limited, and his message too political. He believes, as I do, that cruelty is the worst thing people can do. But America is a big country, and there are decent people whom Vonnegut will never reach with that message–people who believe that injustice or dishonor or getting bored are the worst things we can do. They also deserve artists who will speak to them.
As for me and my house, we will follow Kurt Vonnegut. He invites us to say, “Goddammit, children, you’ve got to be kind.” And I had the privilege this year to read that message in the hundred wry, inimitable, ingenious ways that Vonnegut gives it voice. So, in the end, it was a very good year.