Sunday, February 8, 2009

New Years is a time to forget about the present

New Years is a very peculiar time of the year. We could easily just ignore it the way we ignore the changing of the months but then again there’s something different about the changing of the year. There will always be more Decembers but 2009, the year that is just beginning, will only happen once. We have no opportunity to go back and change a year once it’s over. Maybe that’s why we do things that we don’t normally do during the rest of the year, namely, dwell on the past and speculate about the future.

If you picked up any newspaper over the holiday season it will no doubt include at least one “Top ten of 2008” list whether it be books, movies, moments in sports or politics. Or if you were like my friends and I on New Years Eve, we thought back about the high and low points of the previous year and looked ahead to a year that, for many of us, will have new and exciting experiences. But how well do our picture of the past and future actually correspond with the way things happened or will happen? Psychologists have demonstrated that our ability to recall the past or predict the future is not a keen as we would like to think.

We often like to think of our memories like a camcorder that records images with almost perfect fidelity. Our memories don’t operate like this because we would quickly be overwhelmed by the amount of detail. Even what we would consider rather simple images are rich in detail that we tend to overlook. People who have extraordinary memories, the ability to remember what they ate and wore everyday for decades, often feel burdened by this ability. Our perception and memories have many filters designed to help us pull out pertinent information from all the details. In this way, these filters help us deal with large amounts of information but sometimes they leave us with gaps in our memories that we fill ourselves, sometimes with false memories.

There have been a multitude of different studies that have demonstrated that it is actually not that hard to create false memories. In one experiment, participants were presented a list of words with a theme such as “water”, “ice”, “wet”, “dark” and “freeze”. When later asked to recall whether certain words were part of the list, participants tended to falsely remember words that weren’t on the original list if the words had some connection to the words on the list like “cold”. This may not seem very surprising but these false memories can cause changes in behaviour. Another study falsely suggested to participants that egg salad had made them sick when they were children. When asked to participate in another study four months later (which they claimed was unrelated), a significant portion of the participants showed a strong aversion to egg salad sandwiches. Researchers have even planted memories of getting lost in the mall as a child, being saved by a lifeguard and being the victim of an animal attack. These people start off with very little “memories” of these events but can often, after a couple interviews, recall quite a bit of detail about an event that never happened. At the extreme, many people who claim to have been abducted by aliens can show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder when listening to someone else describing an alien abduction.

If you are doubting your ability to recall the past, I’m about to throw another curveball your way: our ability to predict the future also has some problems. Research in psychology has shown that people have a tendency to overestimate the value of something in the present and underestimate the value of something in the future and the cost of something in the future. For example, one study gave people the choice between a cheaper air conditioner that used more energy (therefore more expensive to operate) and a more expensive model that used less energy. People tended to choose the first one, even though they knew that they would save more money with the second one because they underestimated the costs in the future. This behaviour is what makes us eat that last piece of cheesecake: we think we’ll enjoy that piece of cake more now than if we eat it later. It also causes us to make the mistake of indulging in something now before we actually pay for it, clearly the case with credit card debt. But costs don’t necessarily have to be financial. Smokers tend to underestimate the cost to their health whether it be unhealthy lungs or lung or throat cancer at the extreme.

Another strange thing that people do is assume that they’ll have difference values or preferences in the future. Dan Gilbert does a wonderful job of explaining other people’s research at his recent TED conference. Simply put, people would rather have 50$ today than 60$ in a month but if you ask these same people whether they’d prefer 50$ in twelve months or 60$ in 13 months, they pick the latter. What makes people think that after 12 months goes by we won’t want that 50$ then. Waiting a month for 10$ should be the same whether it is now or a year from now.

Now that this holiday season has drawn to a close, we have all started to live more in the present again. While we’re living with resolutions we made in the past about things we want to do in the future, it’s not a bad idea to keep in my mind our memories and abilities to predict our future selves aren’t perfect.

No comments: