Peak end rule is an effect where you recall the positive or negative parts of an experience more easily the whole journey.
Recall any important phase of your life from past experience. You could recollect a previous relationship, a vacation, or a job you worked at. Read further only after you spend at least 30 seconds thinking. Ready?
How would you explain what you visualized right now? I can guess with a fair amount of certainty that you either thought about the best or the worst part of your experience. For example, you might have remembered your breakup, the most scenic place from the vacation, or the time you got promoted.
Your brain went straight to the extreme experience you had, either good or bad because of the peak end rule.
- What is the peak end rule?
- Examples of the peak end rule
- 5. Changing habits
- How to make use of the peak end rule
- Research and experiments conducted
What is the peak end rule?
The peak end rule is a phenomenon where you recall either the best or worst part of the experience instead of remembering the entire journey. Your impression of the entire experience is based on a few such pieces. In some scenarios, they are the only remnants in your memory while the rest is forgotten.
Read more about all the cognitive biases of the human brain.
Such an effect applies to any experience which has a start and an end. If your friend asked you about your experience, you must remember the entire journey and take an average of the whole endeavor by logic. But, your brain does not operate that way. It recalls the peaks more quickly than the other episodes.
One reason behind the phenomenon could be due to the interconnections between the neurons in your brain. Your peak experience will resonate at a deeper emotional level with you. A positive experience becomes a memory to cherish, and a negative experience turns into a scar for life. Due to these emotions, a more substantial amount of your brain neurons form the memory making it easy to recall.
If your emotions through the entire experience were plotted as a graph, it would look the image below:
A large part of the journey feels neutral or a slight deviation from the norm. But depending on the kind of experience, you’ll have a few peaks in emotions through the course. But, you believe they are the representation of the entire journey.
Various biases such as representativeness heuristic, confirmation bias, availability heuristic, and recency effect cause such a pattern in your memory. Also, the first and last part of the experience has a profound impact on your impression overall.
Examples of the peak end rule
You encounter examples of peak end rule in your life more often than you think.
1. Customer service
Have you visited a restaurant where you hated the food? I’m sure we all have. But were all the dishes bad? Probably not. Maybe one dish was undercooked, or the soup was too watery. Irrespective of how tasty the dessert was, you’ll never visit the restaurant again.
You formed a negative impression of the restaurant based on a dish or two.
Any form of customer experience goes through a similar pattern. If you receive exceptional service on one particular day, but usual support on most days, you’ll go around singing praises of the company. Similarly, if one customer support executive displays a rude behavior, you’ll label the whole team impolite.
If you visit any website with customer reviews, you’ll notice people tend to rate the extreme most often. That’s because people rate their overall experience based on the few positives or negatives they encountered. Website developers use the peak end rule to ensure eliminating any form of bad User Experience(UX) for the readers.
The cost has an interesting influence on the peak experience. If the service or the product is more expensive than the benchmark, your first impression strongly influences your opinion.
For example, if you visit a restaurant that charges $100 for a buffet, you’ll hate the whole meal if the first dish tastes average. If the cost was $10 but the meal was average, you’d shrug it off. Likewise, if you pay $500 for a pair of headphones and notice the packaging off the mark, you’d leave a bad review.
When you shell out big bucks, first impressions make all the difference.
Do you have an ex whom you hate? “I’d kill him/her,” you tell your best friend. But, take a moment to recall your entire relationship. Did you hate the person right from day one? Was the whole relationship terrible? Of course not.
If you found that individual so repulsive, you’d never have dated in the first place. You had your delightful moments, but during the relationship, one(or a few) incidents shattered all ties. Reading this might have evoked some of those lovely memories. Unfortunately, the agony of the negative experience overshadows all the unicorns and rainbows of your relationship.
You will forever describe the person as, “I don’t know what I was thinking when I was dating him/her.”
Recall a long vacation you’ve been on where you spent at least a week in a different city or country.
Did you remember one of your best holidays? If I go a step further, you’ll recall the most surreal experience from that vacation first.
For example, if you went on a trek, you’d picturize watching the view from the summit. If you went scuba diving, you’d visualize the exquisite water life you observed.
You’d hardly remember the journey in the flight or the moments you spent at the hotel. Even if you did, you’d recall only the bits and parts.
The same applies to negative experiences too. If all the hotels had a stinky bathroom or the food was unhygienic, you’d have a poor image of the whole city or country.
4. Sports events
If you’ve watched any sport, recall the match where your favorite team was facing its fiercest rival. Depending on the game, the bout’s duration can range anywhere from a few minutes to hours.
But, the most intense moments of the game are etched in your memory. If a referee made a poor decision against your team, he has earned a spot on your forever abuse list even if the match occurred years ago. If the game involved a nail-biting turning point, you could describe it in great detail even today.
If I asked you to describe a finale you watched, you’d speak more about the peak incidents than the average excitement throughout the game.
5. Changing habits
Have you tried to give up a bad habit or cultivate a good one? How was the journey? You’ll remember all the positive and negatives you went through during the transition.
- If you started working out, you’d remember the breathlessness in your lungs or strain in your calf muscles
- If you tried quitting smoking, you’ll recall the pangs or how energetic you felt
- If you started eating healthy, you’d feel the taste of bland salads on your tongue
The overall journey involved a lot more, but you can’t remember the rest, do you?
The number of examples of the peak end rule are endless:
- How women remember the most painful moments of labor
- How you recall the most thrilling part of the roller coaster
- How you recollect the pain of the injection from an entire medical procedure
How to make use of the peak end rule
You cannot ask your brain to capture the whole experience in detail instead of the peaks alone. Your mind retains the relevant information to keep things simple.
Storing every little moment would consume more energy and would not lead to the best consequences either. Imagine going through an entire vacation from the time you boarded the flight to the time you took the cab home. If you had to explain how the trip went, you’d have to wrack your brain. In most circumstances, such details are unnecessary, which is why your neurons prefer a shortcut.
The biggest takeaway from the peak end rule is the awareness of how it affects you. Here are a few pointers to reduce any damage caused by the effect.
1. Interacting with the people you’re not well-acquainted with
When you’re with people you know well, you can say or do a few stupid things and getaway. But, if you’re among a crowd who hardly knows you, watch your words and actions.
A misspoken sentence or an erroneous action can lead to people assuming you’re a jerk. Similarly, a few powerful words or one solid step can turn you into a champion.
Be wary of the level of acquaintance you have with people. The phenomenon takes the same effect as the influence of high cost. The lesser you know people, the sooner they’ll form an impression about you.
2. Providing business services
If you run a business, pay attention to service/product to the minutest detail. A lousy experience from one employee or one faulty product can impact your business.
Though some negative experiences are inevitable, knowing the possible aftermath can help you cut down a few costly errors. Today, with the broad reach of social media, anyone can propagate a negative review across continents in minutes.
But don’t look at that as a disadvantage alone. If you wow your customers, they can spread the word to thousands of users by a one-liner post on social media.
3. Make careful decisions
When you find yourself influenced by an experience, do not make any hasty decisions. Remind yourself that your brain is echoing the best and worst part of the encounter. Think through before you jump into a conclusion.
Don’t punch your ex when you meet next or call a restaurant terrible for one bad dish. Try to average out the whole experience whenever possible.
Research and experiments conducted
The first experiment on the peak end rule was conducted by the team of Kahneman, Fredrickson, Charles Schreiber, and Donald Redelmeier in 1993. They subjected participants to two similar unpleasant experiences with a minor difference.
In the first trial, the person had to immerse one hand in cold water of 14 degrees Celcius for 60 seconds. During the second trial, participants went through the same experience but had to keep their hand submerged for 30 additional seconds during which the water was maintained at 15 degrees Celcius.
After completing both the trials, the subjects had to pick one among the two tests to repeat. A larger portion of participants chose the second option even if that involved submerging their hand for 30 additional seconds. The researchers concluded that subjects chose the longer trial because they liked the part where the water felt a tad bit warmer.
In 1996 Daniel Kahneman and Redelmeier performed another study on the peak end rule using colonoscopy. For those who are not familiar with the term, colonscopy involving inserting a tube through your anus with a camera at the tip. The tube is moved through the intestine to detect any anomalies by watching the video. The hardest part of the process is enduring the pain when the tube moves inside your digestive system.
In the study, the people who had to undergo colonoscopy were divided into two groups. The first group went through the standard process. For the second group, after the usual procedure, the doctors left the tube in the anus for 3 extra minutes without moving it through the intestines. A stationary tube does not cause any pain to the patient.
As predicted, the people who underwent the three extra minutes rated the procedure less painful because they remembered the portion where the tube was stationery inside their body without causing any pain.
Your brain has a strange way of making sense of the world. The concept of remembering bits and pieces of an experience might seem weird, but it helps you navigate life comfortably on most occasions. However, such shortcuts lead to poor decisions in a few situations.
Peak end rule is one such cognitive bias that you cannot overcome at all. All you can is reduce the bad decisions you make under this effect.
Leave a comment about your experience with the peak end rule.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.