Chapter 10: Once Bitten

The Least Likely of Times

There are many good things about getting older, but no one knows what they are. We fall asleep and wake up at all the wrong times, avoid more foods than we can eat, and take pills to help us remember which other pills to take. In fact, the only really good thing about getting older is that people who still have all their hair are occasionally forced to stand back and admire our wealth of experience. They think of our experience as a form of wealth because they assume it allows us to avoid making the same mistake twice—and sometimes it does. There are a few experiences that those of us who are filthy rich with it just don't repeat, and bathing a cat while drinking peppermint schnapps comes to mind for reasons I'd rather not discuss right now. On the other hand, there are plenty of mistakes that we highly experienced folks seem to make over and over again. We marry people who are oddly like the people we divorced, we attend annual family gatherings and make an annual vow never to return, and we carefully time our monthly expenditures to ensure that we will once again be flat broke on all the dates that begin with a three. These cycles of recidivism seem difficult to explain. After all, shouldn't we learn from our own experience? Imagination has its shortcomings, to be sure, and it is perhaps inevitable that we will mispredict how future events will make us feel when we've never experienced those events before. But once we've been married to a busy executive who spends more hours at work than at home, once we've attended a family reunion at which the aunts fight with the uncles who do their best to offend the cousins, and once we've spent a few lean days between paychecks acquiring intimate knowledge of rice and beans, shouldn't we be able to imagine these events with a reasonable degree of accuracy and hence take steps to avoid them in the future?

We should and we do, but not as often or as well as you might expect. We try to repeat those experiences that we remember with pleasure and pride, and we try to avoid repeating those that we remember with embarrassment and regret. The trouble is that we often don't remember them correctly. Remembering an experience feels a lot like opening a drawer and retrieving a story that was filed away on the day it was written, but as we've seen in previous chapters, that feeling is one of our brain's most sophisticated illusions. Memory is not a dutiful scribe that keeps a complete transcript of our experiences, but a sophisticated editor that clips and saves key elements of an experience and then uses these elements to rewrite the story each time we ask to reread it. The clip-and-save method usually works pretty well because the editor usually has a keen sense of which elements are essential and which are disposable. That's why we remember how the groom looked when he kissed the bride but not which finger the flower girl had up her nose when it happened. Alas, as keen as its editorial skills may be, memory does have a few quirks that cause it to misrepresent the past and hence causes us to misimagine the future.

For example, you may or may not use four-letter words, but I trust you've never counted them. So take a guess: Are there more four-letter words in the English language that begin with k (k-1's) or that have k as their third letter (k-3's)? If you are like most people, you guessed that the k-1's outnumber the k-3's. You probably answered this question by briefly checking your memory ("Hmmm, there's kite, kilt, kale. . ."), and because you found it easier to recall k-1's than k-3's, you assumed there must be more of the former than the latter. This would normally be a very fine deduction. After all, you can recall more four-legged elephants (e-4's) than six-legged elephants (e-6's) because you have seen more e-4's than e-6's, and you have seen more e-4's than e-6's because there are more e-4's than e-6's. The actual number of e-4's and e-6's in the world determines how frequently you encounter them, and the frequency of your encounters determines how easily you can remember those encounters.

Alas, the reasoning that serves you so well when it comes to elephants serves you quite poorly when it comes to words. It is indeed easier to recall k-1's than k-3's, but not because you have encountered more of the former than the latter. Rather, it's easier to recall words that start with k because it is easier to recall any word by its first letter than by its third letter. Our mental dictionaries are organized more or less alphabetically, like Webster's itself, hence we can't easily "look up" a word in our memories by any letter except the first one. The fact is that there are many more k-3's than k-1's in the English language, but because the latter are easier to recall, people routinely get this question wrong. The k-word puzzle works because we naturally (but incorrectly) assume that things that come easily to mind are things we have frequently encountered.

What is true of elephants and words is also true of experiences. Most of us can bring to mind memories of riding a bicycle more easily than we can bring to mind memories of riding a yak, hence we correctly conclude that we've ridden more bikes than yaks in the past. This would be impeccable logic—except for the fact that the frequency with which we've had an experience is not the only determinant of the ease with which we remember it. In fact, infrequent or unusual experiences are often among the most memorable, which is why most Americans know precisely where they were on the morning of September 11, 2001, but not on the morning of September 10. The fact that infrequent experiences come so readily to mind can lead us to draw some peculiar conclusions. For instance, for most of my adult life I have had the distinct impression that I tend to pick the slowest line at the grocery store, and that whenever I get tired of waiting in the slowest line and switch to another, the line I switched from begins moving faster than the one I switched to. Now, if this were true—if I really did have bad karma, bad juju, or some other metaphysical form of badness that caused any line I joined to slow down—then there would have to be someone out there who felt that they had a metaphysical form of goodness that caused any line they joined to speed up. After all, everyone can't get in the slowest line on every occasion, can they? And yet, nobody I know feels that they have the power to quicken lines by joining them. On the contrary, just about everyone I know seems to believe that they, like me, are inexorably drawn to the slowest of all possible lines, and that their occasional attempts to thwart fate merely slow the lines they join and hasten the lines they abandon. Why do we all believe this?

Because standing in a line that is moving at a rapid pace, or even an average pace, is such a mind-numbingly ordinary experience that we don't notice or remember it. Instead we just stand there bored, glancing at the tabloids, contemplating the Clark bars, and wondering what idiot decided that batteries of different sizes should be labeled with different numbers of A's rather than with words we can actually remember such as large, medium, and small. As we do this, we rarely turn to our partners and say, "Have you noticed how normally this line is moving? I mean, it's just so darned average that I'm feeling compelled to make notes so that I can charm others with the tale at a later date." No, the line-moving experiences we remember are those in which the guy in the bright red hat who was originally standing behind us before he switched to the other line has made it out of the store and into his car before we've even made it to the cash register because the bovine grandmother ahead of us is waving her coupons at the clerk and debating the true meaning of the phrase expiration date. This doesn't really happen that often, but because it is so memorable, we tend to think it does.

Back to Foreword >>

Excerpted from Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert Copyright © 2006 by Daniel Gilbert. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.