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All’s Well That Ends Well – At Least That’s What Your Mind Thinks

Imagine you are in line at the DMV. Would you rather wait in a long line that moves relatively quickly, or a slower moving line that overall takes less time? Most people would probably choose the shorter line, right? What about if you had a choice between holding your hand in painfully cold water for 60 seconds or 90 seconds? Again, most would assume that no one in their right mind would voluntarily subject themselves to pain for any longer than necessary. Even if I told you that in the 90-second option the water warmed up 1 degree in the last 30 seconds, the 60-second choice clearly seems more bearable, right?

Net satisfaction and duration have little to no effect on evaluations of past experiences. Instead, it’s what happens at the peak and the end that matters.

These “would you rather” questions may not seem that fun, due to their obvious nature. Of course, everyone would choose the shorter option in both of these unpleasant scenarios, right? However, if it were up to the Peak-End Rule, you may actually choose the longer of the two options in both of these cases!

The Peak-End Rule is a mental shortcut people unconsciously utilize when making retrospective evaluations of any experience that had a clear beginning and end. Instead of evaluating an experience based on overall satisfaction or duration, we tend to judge a past experience based on the average of how we felt at the most intense moment (the peak) and at the conclusion (the end). These retrospective evaluations guide our behavior by influencing our future decisions. We use how we felt in the past to tell us how to act in the future. 

Barbara Fredrickson and Daniel Kahneman first proposed the ideas behind the Peak-End Rule in 1993. In a series of studies, they had participants rate pleasant and unpleasant films either from memory or during viewings. Finding that duration of the films had little influence over affective ratings, Fredrickson and Kahneman concluded that retrospective evaluations are made by averaging how participants felt during remembered “snapshots” of the film, rather than an average of the entire experience.

Kahneman et al. (1993) later elaborated on this “snapshot” idea, thus developing a blueprint for the Peak-End Rule as it’s known today. In this experiment, researchers had participants submerge their hand in painfully cold water for 60 seconds, and then again for 60 seconds plus an additional 30 seconds during which the water warmed up from 14°C to 15°C. While still uncomfortable, this temperature was markedly more bearable. When asked which trial they would like to repeat, the majority chose to take part in the longer of the two trials. This suggested that people preferred the prolonged exposure to the cold painful water! However, because the intense cold of the water gradually got warmer for the longer condition (thus a less intense peak) and hands were warmer at the conclusion (a preferable end), participants judged the average of the peak and the end of that trial as less intense. They then used this retrospective evaluation to guide there future choice, choosing the longer and less intense of the two trials to repeat.

This same rule can apply to consumer experiences, such as wait times. Carmon and Kahneman (1995) simulated waiting in line using a computer program where participants could see how many people were in front of them in the queue. Participants waited in two lines each, one that was longer, but advanced more quickly (particularly towards the end), and one that was shorter but advanced more slowly, even though it was quicker overall. They measured real time responses throughout and found that the way participants felt at the end of the study predicted retrospective evaluations of their experiences. Participants who waited in the longer line were more satisfied by the end of the experiment due to the way that the line began to move more quickly. Therefore, they ended on a positive note and judged that experience as more enjoyable. This led researchers to conclude that the end is actually weighted more heavily than the peak of an experience, and thus has more influence over retrospective evaluations made using the Peak-End Rule.

Despite the rain, ending your vacation on a positive note will allow you to remember the whole experience positively.

Now that you are aware of the Peak-End rule, you will likely notice it in every day life. Remember going to Punta Cana over spring break? It rained almost the whole time, but that one sunny day that you spent lying on the beach and that fun last night you had with your friends is what stands out in your memory. When talking to your parents at the time, you had said it wasn’t that great, but looking back you now regard that trip as the most fun you’ve ever had. What about your favorite movie? That one scene is so amazing and intense and emotional, isn’t it? And that ending! But a real analysis of the movie may reveal that the in-between portions, which the Peak-End Rule seems to ignore, are not actually as great as your memory leads you to believe.

Although researchers are not completely sure of why the Peak-End Rule occurs, they believe that it has something to do with the salience of the peak and the recency of the end. Intense moments are generally more emotional, and due to this salience we have a greater memory for such moments. The recency effect causes recent events to be remembered more clearly, thus the ending of an experience is what most easily comes to mind. Memories are not only important for those fond, nostalgic feelings they bring us, but also in influencing our present decisions. We choose to repeat pleasant experiences and avoid those that were unenjoyable.

The types of memories used when retrospectively evaluating events also contribute to the effects seen by the Peak-End Rule. According to Geng et al. (2013), we use memories for specific events (episodic memory) only over short retention intervals, after which point these specific memories fade. After this, we use a more general form of memory for experiences and common knowledge (semantic memory) to recall an event. As these specific episodic memories fade and the general memories for an event are retrieved over and over again, they become more susceptible to errors.

From devoted fans to those who deem themselves too cool for Star Wars, everyone knows this iconic scene. However, it’s possible that this intense emotional peak taints people’s evaluations of the film.

You don’t have to have a PhD in psychology to understand why this rule occurs if you consider the reconstructive nature of memory. To say that memory is reconstructive means that we don’t always remember events exactly as they occurred. Instead, we tend to get some of the facts wrong and incorporate our expectations, beliefs, and general knowledge into our memory. In fact, we can be surprisingly inaccurate! These inaccuracies are called false memories, or memories of events that never happened. Information learned after the fact, misinformation, and later experiences can all influence how we think about past events, leading to errors. Additionally, the mere passage of time, coupled with forgetting and lack of attention to detail can further cause us to incorrectly recall experiences.

Anything that influences our memory is important to be aware of. After all, we use our memories for past events to influence what experiences we choose to have in the future. Although the Peak-End Rule acts outside of our awareness, it is still important to be cognizant of it. When evaluating experiences, try to consider more aspects of an experience than just the most intense moments. Additionally, do not let the final moment taint your memory for the entire experience. On the contrary, there may be times that the Peak-End rule may work to your advantage, and thus can be utilized effectively. A positive ending may improve a relatively unpleasant experience. This could apply to medical procedures that could be improved by a more comfortable ending, boring advertisements with a hilarious punch line, or average restaurants that surprise guests with a delicious free dessert. After all, in the words of Shakespeare himself: “All’s well that ends well.”


Carmon, Z. & Kahneman, D. (1995). The experienced utility of queuing: Real-time affect and retrospective evaluations of simulated Queues (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from researchgate.net (236864505).

Geng, X., Chen, Z., Lam, W., & Zheng, Q. (2013). Hedonic evaluation over short and long retention intervals: The mechanism of the peak–end rule. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making26(3), 225-236, https://doi.org/10.1002/bdm.1755

Kahneman, D., Fredrickson, B. L., Schreiber, C. A., & Redelmeier, D. A. (1993). When more pain is preferred to less: Adding a better end. Psychological science4(6), 401-405, 10.1111/j.1467-9280.1993.tb00589.x

Fredrickson, B. L., & Kahneman, D. (1993). Duration neglect in retrospective evaluations of affective episodes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology65(1), 45. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.65.1.45



  1. zwang21
    May 16th, 2018 at 00:16 | #1

    This is a great post! I really like how you illustrated Peak-End Rule and since I wrote my blog on the same effect, I have a unique perspective to view your post. We both talked about the Peak-End Rule but we used some different experiments and researches to help explain the effect. You used the “waiting in line” experiments, whereas I used “autobiographical memory” experiments. I believe they both worked perfect! The favorite thing for me about your post is how you relate the Peak-End Rule to real life. The ending paragraph provides application of the effect in our daily life and it perfectly conclude the post. Moreover, I also like how you relate the Peak-End Rule to other topics in cognitive psychology such as false memory and attention, which is something I did not think about in my post. After all, I really learned a lot from reading your post!

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