On Monday, Feb. 13, I began the day by stubbing my toe on my bed, before falling over while putting one leg into a fresh pair of boxer briefs. That was the first of 14 such annoyances that happened to me that day.
I wouldn’t normally be able to look into my past and tell you that on Thursday, Feb. 16 I cut my index fingernail too short or that on Tuesday, Feb. 28 I got to the “Brick Oven” in the Student Center and found there were no more sandwiches. No, as much as I love complaining and holding grudges, these daily pains usually slip my mind.
But on Feb. 13 I tried something different. I decided for the next few weeks I would keep track of my daily nuisances. For comparison, I started tracking my daily “benefits” too, in an effort to evaluate just how often I am randomly hurt or helped each day.
To give the feel of science in my not-at-all-scientific experiment, I thought of some guidelines. To avoid daily changes in my image of what was a nuisance or benefit, I recorded anything to which I took any notice. On Tuesday, Feb. 21, some jerk let the door into Gladfelter Hall close on me – nuisance – but then I get to the elevators, already late, and found one just opening with room for me – benefit. I also decided I wouldn’t tally my daily totals until I completed the experiment, so I wouldn’t try to fulfill my expectations.
I knew I would run into nuisances and benefits that weren’t as trivial as others. So, I decided if the benefit or nuisance was something I would bring up in normal conversation, it would count double. On Wednesday, Feb. 22, I got two parking tickets in less than an hour’s time; I counted each ticket as two, which, by my math, made four big, fat nuisances.
I finished collecting my data before spring break and totaled my figures, which showed a trend that surprised me. Looking at the first week of my experiment, by all of my accounts a pretty stressful week, I found that each day I had more benefits than nuisances.
So, I further crunched the numbers. Over the three weeks – 15 days because I didn’t include weekends – I averaged nearly 36 benefits and about 23 nuisances daily. I only had one day on which I had more nuisances than benefits; that was the same day I got the two parking tickets, lost my Owl Card and first started fighting with my FAFSA form. In fact, one-third of my recorded days had twice more benefits than nuisances.
Chris Anderson, an assistant professor of psychology at Temple, was more than happy to explain what the surprise meant.
“We might have fewer ‘nuisances,’ but we allow them to carry more weight,” Anderson, who researches judgment and decision making, said. “You’d be more upset about a loss than you’d be happy about a similarly impactful gain.”
It’s just how most of us think. On Friday, March 3, a Philadelphia cop caught me cutting someone off to pull an illegal U-turn on Spring Garden Street. I remembered that as a negative experience, but I also recorded the encounter as a benefit because I didn’t get a ticket.
“What we remember is not the same as what we experienced,” Anderson said.
I may not be capable of completing an effective or trustworthy case-study, but others have proven the same point before. We all tend to overestimate the bad.
“It’s important to recognize,” Anderson said, “so we can downplay the extremes – negative and positive – when recalling the past or making decisions.”
To be fair, after I recovered from my early morning fall that first Monday and had finished getting dressed, I found a $20 bill in my jeans. But that isn’t as good a story, is it?
Christopher George Wink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.