The remembering selfIn 2010, Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman took to the stage at TED. In his talk, he presented the idea of two types of self:

  • Experiencing self
  • Remembering self

The ideas he introduced concern the way we go through life, experiencing and then remembering the events and occurrences that happen through our lives. The implications are both surprising and far reaching.

For digital marketers however, it has even more potential: To understand the concept is to give yourself a significant advantage when considering the user-experience (UX) of our sites.

Here’s a quick primer to get you going on what it is, why it’s (staggeringly) important and what you should be doing about it.

The two types of self

So, a quick lesson for you – what do these two types of self mean?

Experiencing self:

The experiencing self is the ‘you’ in the moment who lives through the event”, says Paul Spector in an article on the topic. Whenever you go through an experience, your experiencing self is the one that is present at the time.

As Daniel Kahneman puts it:

There is an experiencing self, who lives in the present and knows the present, is capable of reliving the past, but basically it has only the present. It’s the experiencing self that the doctor approaches [and] asks, ‘does it hurt now when I touch you here?‘”

Remembering self:

Continuing his description, Paul Spector says that “the remembering self is the ‘you’ that writes the history. It is also the remembering self that is consulted when planning the future.

Daniel Kahneman has this to say:

…[it] is the one that keeps score, and maintains the story of our life, and it’s the one that the doctor approaches in asking the question, ‘how have you been feeling lately?‘”

Some surprising results

There has been significant research carried out on the concept of the experiencing self and the remembering self and how the two are used in daily life.

One such experiment asked participants to have their hand immersed in ice water cold enough to cause some pain. Participants were warned to expect three different trials:

  1. The first trial would last 60 seconds
  2. The second trial would last 90 seconds, but in the final 30 seconds the water was slowly warmed by a (slightly) more comfortable (but still painful) one degree
  3. In the third trial participants were allowed to choose which of the two previous trials they disliked the least, and then repeat that one

Throughout each trial, participants had their free hand on a keyboard in order to record their level of pain. Here is what the results looked like (I’ve made the results in the graph up, but it demonstrates the point I am trying to make):

Experiencing vs remembering self study

Let’s summarise this scenario quickly:

  • In trial one, participants experienced a constant 60 seconds of pain
  • In trial two, participants experienced a constant 90 seconds of pain, where the final 30 seconds were slightly less painful

So based on this, which do you think the participants decided to repeat?

I think it’s fair to say that any sane person would opt for the shorter period of pain, and would choose to repeat trial one.

The astounding thing however is that a massive 80% of participants opted to repeat trial two, having previously reported a slight decrease in pain for the final 30 seconds of the trial.

Just think about that for a moment; participants willingly ignored the fact that they experienced a full 50% more time in pain and chose to report trial two (the long one) as the one they would be happy to repeat.

The implications

This finding is significant because it shows that regardless of the experience that the experiencing self goes through, the remembering self disregards this and chooses to remember the lower level of pain at the end of trial two.

Experiencing self vs remembering self

It effectively means that regardless of how bad an experience is, as long as the end of it is lower than the peak of discomfort, your remembering self will remember it more positively, therefore overriding the experience you just went through.

Taking this concept onto the world of marketing, imagine what this means for a brand.

A brand’s website could have the best user-experience, content could be easy to find, enjoyable to read and the product at the end could be desirable and well priced. All of that stuff is great for your experiencing self.

But what if, after working your way around the site, you go to purchase a product only to be sent to a separate domain to complete payment. What if that separate domain was built by a competent developer, but bypassed the UX/design team (it happens)?

Suddenly, you’ve just made your customer’s final interaction with your brand a negative (or less positive) one.

That plays right into the hands of the remembering self, which is going to take the negative feeling at the climax of the experience and tarnish the entire memory and feeling towards your brand.

Now the chances of your customers recommending your brand to friends, or returning in the future, or simply enjoying your product are greatly reduced.

What can be done?

Basically, don’t forget the what a user’s final interaction with your site will be.

Infact, don’t just remember to take care of the end, but prioritise it above the rest of the experience. That’s not to say that the rest of the user experience shouldn’t be top notch, but if you are going to mess up one part of the experience, make damn sure it’s not the end.

As you might expect, there are some brands who get this completely wrong. Take Apple and Paypal for example.

A friend decided to purchase an iPhone direct from the Apple website and take advantage of their free credit option, allowing the customer to spread the cost of the device over a period of up to 24 months.

The payment service was setup and managed by Paypal.

As you’d expect with anything from Apple, the user experience whilst browsing their website is beautiful and functional in equal measure:

Apple and Paypal

Apple and Paypal

Choosing the device you’d like to purchase is a joy; switching between feature options, colour and size is logical and very easy to navigate.

This is a service that appeals to the experiencing self; the part of you living in the moment, choosing a new phone.

Next, it was time to sort out payment. This is where Paypal joins forces with Apple to sort out the payment plan. The plan itself was relatively easy to setup but a few months in, Paypal had failed to take the correct amount of payment (if any at all) each month.

This forced my friend to login each month (without a reminder), and remember to manually make the payment, using Paypal’s un-user-friendly interface.

In short, the final user experience in this whole episode was a clunky, unreliable payment service. It was a stress, a hassle and it terrible final experience.

This plays to the remembering self. Based on the poor payment experience, it applies bad feeling to the entire Apple service. As such, the experience of purchasing an iPhone from Apple and paying through Paypal is rated as poor.


The conclusion is simple, user experience should look like this:

Appealing to the remembering self

And not this:

Appealing to the remembering self

Further information

Want to delve deeper? Watch Daniel Kahneman’s TED talk here:

Main image – by Clem on Flickr