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Remembering Pain—and a Presidency—By Its Ending

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Endings matter. That’s the consistent lesson of experiments that track people’s memories of pain.

Imagine yourself in one such experiment led by psychologist Daniel Kahneman (later a Nobel laureate for founding behavioral economics). You immerse a hand in painfully cold water for one minute. You then repeat the painful experience with the other hand, which gets an additional 30 seconds in not-quite-so-cold water, which allows your discomfort to diminish somewhat. Question: Which experience would you later recall as the more painful?

Although the 90-second experience exposed you to more net pain, you would—if you were like the experiment’s participants—recall it as less painful. Moreover, you would choose to repeat it over the shorter experience that ended with greater pain.

This curious phenomenon—that people discount the duration of a painful experience, and instead judge it by its ending (and peak) moments of pain—has been repeatedly confirmed. After a painful medical procedure or childbirth, people overlook the pain’s duration and instead recall what is most cognitively available—the peak and end moments.

Recognizing that endings matter, some physicians have applied the finding by lengthening an uncomfortable experience with gradual lessening of the pain. How ironic: If a doctor or dentist, having completed a procedure, asks if you’d like to leave now or to bear a few more minutes of diminishing discomfort, there’s a case to be made for agreeing to the tapered hurt.

Although the time scale of a medical procedure and a presidency differ, the Trump era will forever be remembered by its end—when, as the Senate and House convened to ratify the 2020 electoral votes, Trump encouraged his followers to flock to D.C. for a time that “Will be wild!”; reassured them that “We will stop the steal!”; admonished them that “You will never take back our country with weakness”; directed them to “Walk down to the Capitol”; and, after they had violently stormed the Capitol building and halted proceedings, took to Twitter to reiterate his claims of election fraud and tell the rioters “We love you. You’re very special.”

The resulting insurrectionist assault on the nation’s democratic house—horrifying Republicans and Democrats alike—will surely color people’s future recollections of the Trump presidency and its enablers. Psychologically speaking, the assault was a double whammy that subjected America to peak pain at the presidency’s end. The vivid scenes of rampage will be imprinted in people’s minds, lingering as the most cognitively available basis for judging the Trump era, and for comparing it to the Biden era to follow. Endings matter.

1 Comment
Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee

Thanks Dave for once again giving us the Psychological Science to deal with the most incredulous moment in our history.