When reading Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow there were pain and pleasure experiments discussed in and about page 381 which goaded a thought experiment into my fevered brain. I will get to that in a bit. The experimenter told the subject there were three short pain experiments where they were to voluntarily hold their hand in ice water. The first was to be for 60 seconds and for them to record on a scale of 0 – 10 just how painful that felt. The second was after a resting period of seven minutes to hold their hand in the ice water for 90 seconds and record just how much pain they felt.
After the first two experiments they were asked which experiment hurt the most and which they were willing to repeat. Most people chose the 90-second ice water because their memory of the pain was that it didn’t hurt so much. Unbeknownst to the subjects there was an invisible opening into the container and warmer water had been slowly pumped into the small tank to raise the temperature by one degree. The change in temperature was barely perceptible and might be interpreted at a change in feeling as the hand got really cold.
The analysis of this experiment, and some similar ones to confirm the hypothesis, was that it was the memory of the pain and not the total amount of pain which had determined how people felt about the experiences. The memory of the pain had lessened intensity because the water had been warmed slightly and it was the intensity of the pain at the last moments which was remembered.
Similar experiments have been performed with pleasure, and it is not the total amount of pain or pleasure, measured in time or intensity, experienced during an event, but the peak averaged with the final moments before returning to a neutral state which most affect the subject’s memory. What appeals to me about their observations is that it becomes possible to control how you are going to feel about the various events in your life. Having a wonderful vacation can be ruined by some moderately negative experiences at the end or perhaps even on the trip home. To leave a good memory of the events we should leave plenty of time for an easy and very pleasurable ending and pleasant return home.
Another thought came up and I hope I can communicate this negative thought in a positive way: When felons are sent to prison it would make more sense to make their first incarceration as brief as possible but to make the last few days quite unpleasant. This is punishment after all, which is intended to change their criminal inclinations, and if the experiments are right it is the departure which will be remembered. We want the felons to remember their prison time as very unpleasant and an experience which they want to avoid. If their stay is to be a long one, that time might be made as humane as conditions permit, but the departure shouldn’t be pleasant or they will be subliminally encouraged to return.