The Peak-End Rule: How You Remember Experiences

Your brain has a curious way of representing experiences in memory.

“People judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e. its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience.” — Daniel Kahneman

Memory is a series of snapshots.

Experiences are remembered by moments of emotional intensity and endings. Everything in between fades by comparison. Even the duration of an experience cannot withstand its own peaks and valleys.

The cause is unclear, but it has been demonstrated across an array of experiments.

The peak-end rule is a cognitive bias toward the most intense point of an experience and its end. Regardless of the good or bad in between, every experience is judged by these two snapshots. This form of bias only occurs for experiences with a clear beginning and end.

Examples of the peak-end rule:

  • A great dessert at the end of a mediocre, inexpensive meal can leave you with a positive memory of the overall experience.

  • A painful medical procedure is remembered more positively if the relief from pain is gradual during the procedure instead of abrupt at the end.

  • A salesperson can largely erase the negative effects of long lines, neglect and poor service with one positive act.

  • A tough season for a sports team ending with a championship win is cherished due to the emotional intensity of the ending.

  • A great relationship that ends in a bad breakup is remembered negatively.

So what does all of this mean?

  • Your brain uses feelings to reconstruct events from memory.

  • A bias toward emotional peaks and the more recent endings can lead to a misrepresentation of experiences from memory.

  • People in hospitality, entertainment, sales and other areas who understand this bias can craft experiences to manipulate you.

  • Your past self and current self often disagree over events. Your current self, who did not actually experience the event, often wins.

🤔 Food for Thought:

Can you think of some recent experiences in your own life influenced by the peak-end rule?

How do you think you will remember this essay?

⚙️ One Small Step:

If you wish to remember an experience as positive in nature, try two things. First, look for opportunities during the experience to amp up your enjoyment. Second, try to end it on a positive note. Hack this bias in your favor.