How Bad Endings Ruin Great Experiences
The peak-end rule and why it skews perceptions.
Posted November 16, 2021 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Most experiences in life are not entirely good or entirely bad.
- When looking back, people don’t always evaluate experiences in a rational way.
- People remember experiences based on their most intense moments and their endings.
How do you decide if an experience is good or bad? This can be a difficult question, as few things in life are completely pleasant or completely unpleasant. Some experiences start out great and gradually get worse over time (think of television shows like "The Walking Dead" and "Game of Thrones"). Other experiences start out weak but get better as they go on (both "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Seinfeld" had weak first seasons).
After an experience ends, whether it’s a television show, job, or relationship, the way that our minds remember and process information will shape how we think about the experience. Like many other processes, the way that we do this doesn’t always make sense or serve our best interests.
For a rational decision-maker, whether or not you remember an experience positively should be based on the total sum of your feelings during the experience. In other words, you should add up (and combine) the total amount of positive and negative emotions you felt at each moment in time throughout the experience. Researchers refer to this concept as objective happiness (Kahneman, 1999).
But it’s easy to see that objective happiness is a poor model for describing how people actually think about happiness. There are two main problems:
- Objective happiness doesn’t account for variability in experience. Consider two TV shows that make you feel, on average, moderately happy (5 out of 10 in terms of your TV-watching happiness). One show is consistently mediocre — every single episode is a 5 out of 10. The other is wildly variable — some episodes are excellent (9 out of 10), and others are bad (3 out of 10). Obviously, people don’t (and arguably shouldn’t) evaluate these two shows as equally good.
- Not every part of an experience should be considered equally important. Sometimes a bad ending can completely invalidate everything that came before (see "Game of Thrones"), or it might be easier to forgive the weak beginning of an experience (nobody thinks much about the disappointing second season of "Friday Night Lights").
The Peak-End Rule
Research suggests that people judge experiences based on two critical aspects — the peak (the most intense positive or negative experience) and the end (the last moments of the experience). Arguably, we focus on these aspects of experience because of how our memory prioritizes information. We are more likely to remember things that are emotionally intense (the peak) and things that are relatively recent (the end).
Importantly, the fact that we focus on these parts of experience can lead to some seemingly irrational judgments. Famously, Kahneman and colleagues (1993) found that you could make a painful experience more pleasant by adding an additional (slightly less painful) experience at the ending. In other words: 30 seconds of extreme pain is remembered as being worse than 30 seconds of extreme pain plus 30 extra seconds of moderate pain. This difference occurs because, in the second situation, people are more likely to remember only the moderate pain (and not the extreme pain). Ironically, this means that you can make a bad experience seem more pleasant to people by adding extra pain at the end.
Ending on a High Note
When an experience ends, the way that you remember it will be shaped heavily by the ending. In extreme cases, conflicts at the end of a career or a relationship can retroactively damage years of goodwill (or at least, years of modest happiness). This means that if you are planning to leave a relationship or a career, then, for the sake of your own memories, try to part on good terms.
Facebook image: David Prado Perucha/Shutterstock
Kahneman D. (1999). Objective happiness. In: Kahneman D., Diener E., Schwarz N., Eds. Well-being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. Russell Sage Foundation; New York: 1999. pp. 3–25.
Kahneman, D., Fredrickson, B. L., Schreiber, C. A., Redelmeier, D. A. (1993). When more pain is preferred to less: Adding a better end. Psychological Science, 4(6), 401–405.