Today I am graduating from my doctoral program at Imperial College London. A happy and exciting occasion! This happy feeling is certain due in part to sheer relief that my PhD journey is over, as the reality was that not a moment of my experience was without struggle.
But in my reflection of the past five years I am noticing that I am starting to feel differently about that struggle, my mind more quickly returning to the thrilling feeling of passing my thesis defense rather than the meltdowns that inevitably came when the results from yet another study were non-significant (and therefore non-usable). The institution that I once approached with hearty skepticism, and the city that I was desperate to leave, I now feel nostalgic for. What’s the deal, brain? Perhaps science can help to explain this somewhat sudden turnaround.
Specifically, it might be explained by the foolproof science of How I Met Your Mother. Ever harbor negative feelings towards something but when faced with the prospect of it ending, suddenly it doesn’t seem so bad? Robin calls these feelings Graduation Goggles:
Yep. This is a real thing. Case 1: me, right now.
Peak-end rule is one of a long list of biased processes for memory formation in which there is a difference between the experiences we have and the way we remember them. Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that the way an experience ends, or the peak of the experience, determines the happiness we ascribe to it. Take Kahneman’s classic example: Kahneman and team experimentally found that subjects preferred 60 seconds of 14ºC ice water followed by 30 sec of 15ºC ice water over 60 sec of 14ºC ice water alone. This seems irrational since water at both 14ºC and 15ºC are uncomfortable, but participants preferred more pain over less pain, so long as it ended more pleasantly. This is because they were impacted more by the last level of pain they experienced.
Accordingly, our memories of an event or period of time are more likely to be based on the most pleasurable point or it’s end, rather than an average of the experience overall. This is probably due to imperfect recall, as our memories of the thoughts and feelings had at each moment get smoothed out over time into an overall impression.
Take another classic example: riding a roller coaster at a theme park. Often you wait a very long and boring time before experiencing a thrilling ride, over in mere seconds. Our recollection of the experience tends to be biased towards the thrilling peak – the short ride itself – rather than an average of the whole experience that includes the boring wait.
If you polled me at many points in the PhD process, my feelings then would certainly not match my feelings now. Having the thrill of passing my defense as the peak, and the celebratory nature of the graduation last, has made me question, was it really all that bad?
I’m sure you’ve noticed the unpleasant feeling that comes when we can’t have something anymore. We hate loss. The endowment effect is a bias in which we overvalue something just because we own it. This is a symptom of loss aversion – where we feel losses differently than gains. Ever wonder why you can’t part with a possession you probably never use even though you’d never buy it now? The same might apply for experiences. Not totally convinced I wanted to keep up my work while in the thick of my PhD, now leaving the program feels like a loss because at least before it was MY program and MY degree. This is also connected to the familiarity effect, in which we prefer things just by virtue of being more familiar with them.
Basically… the more something feels like it’s yours, the more likely you are to overvalue it and feel the pain of loss when you don’t have it anymore. And after 5 years of identifying as a PhD student, the ownership of that identity is strong enough to feel a loss. Cue graduation goggles and Sarah’s McLachlan’s I Will Remember You.
Thankfully, I have recently resumed work on a paper for publication, so the realities of the daily life in the doctoral program have conveniently flooded back. Problem solved.