The peak-end rule

In reading The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, I came across one of those pieces of research that just keeps coming up in conversation, so I’ll post it here. The theory is known as “peak-end rule,” as expressed by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, describes the way that people remember events by the peak and the end of the experience. For instance, if I go to an amusement park, this heuristic says that I will remember my trip by the height of excitement and the way I felt when I left. The classic experiment showing this phenomenon is described by Mr. Schwartz:

Participants in a laboratory study were asked to listen to a pair of very loud, unpleasant noises played through their headphones. One noise lasted for eight seconds. The other lasted sixteen. The first eight seconds of the second noise were identical to the first noise, whereas the second eight seconds, while still loud and unpleasant, were not as loud. Later, the participants were told that they would have to listen to one of the noises again, but that they could choose which one. Clearly the second noise is worse–the unpleasantness lasted twice as long. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of people chose the second to be repeated.

These results are not limited to abstract, constructed experiences. Schwartz another experience with a little more real-world impact:

In the test, one group of patients had a standard colonoscopy. A second group had a standard colonoscopy plus. The “plus” was that after the actual examination was over, the doctor left the instrument in place for a short time… and it made a difference. It turned out that, over a five-year period after the exam, patients in the second group were more likely to comply with calls for follow-up colonoscopies than patients in the first group.

And of course, this example takes advantage of the colonsocopy rule: any research that deals with colonoscopies makes me uncomfortable, and therefore has more impact.

As I mentioned, since I discovered this rule, it keeps popping up in discussions I have been having. Having recently been on a vacation, it strikes me that this heuristic is of utmost importance in planning long events. It appears that the optimal planning for a vacation (or any event for that matter) would look something like this:

Peak-end rule

In the case of my vacation, the last high-point of my time in Europe was in Florence, followed by one brief day in Copenhagen. Not that there’s anything wrong with Denmark, but that day ends up coming up in more of my conversations than the rest of the trip because that is how memory works (that and blood jello is really, really disgusting). If you’re planning any trips soon, make sure to end on a high note, because you will be the one telling the stories.

17 thoughts on “The peak-end rule

  1. This idea is new to me, and I haven’t done much reading on it, so maybe I’m missing something, but your conclusion about planning long trips by ending on a high note doesn’t seem to follow from the rule as stated. The rule (and the other examples given) seem to indicate that some down time after the high note makes the experience more pleasurable (or at least preferable). Maybe you can clarify what you mean by “that day ends up coming up in more of my conversations” (is that indicitive of goodness or badness) and whether you actually enjoyed the trip, net, or not.

  2. The examples that I gave were in the case that the events are negative. The downtime is essentially a more positive moment because both situations were unpleasant. It’s not the downtime per se that makes things better, it’s the lack of an uncomfortable situation.

  3. I plan trips in a similar way. My most memorable trips are those where I’ve deliberately organised real physical effort plus poor accommodation and then ended with luxury.

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