• Robb G. Best

Gaming the memory: the 'Peak-end' Rule

How do you decide on whether to go back to the same restaurant again, buy the same breakfast cereal, or even whether to read this blog one more time?

This is the beauty of the memory, which does you the favor of storing neural code from your past to rescue and remind you of the outcome of some past experience. Like a trailer from a movie, your brain replays a snippet or two from a past event to give you context for future decisions. That seems pretty straightforward, except for a couple of minor glitches discovered by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman and his fellow researchers.

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwarz explains their surprising findings. Kahneman’s team has learned that in an effort to both conserve energy and keep you safe, your brain takes more of a Cliff Notes approach to memory than a blow by blow accounting of what actually happened.

Our memory summaries seem to be guided by two principles. First, we tend to focus more heavily on the peak moment or moments of the experience, and on the end. This is known as the ‘Peak-end’ rule.

For example, the last time you dined out at your favorite restaurant, what sticks out in your memory might be that first bite of the Better-Than-Sex Chocolate Volcano Cake, and the fact that the waiter took the dessert off the bill because your meal took an exceptionally long time to get to your table. What tends not to show up in the memory summary is the duration of the wait and your ire at the time. Those aspects of the experience typically don’t make it into the final edit.

Our brains seem to be predisposed not to report back a faithful recollection of the actual events, but a truncated version which edits out duration and our general sense of how we felt during the majority of the experience.

This suggests that our decisions are often built on the foundation of very limited information. The reason for this consolidation is not fully understood. The highlight reel playing out in your brain might be the result of an ancient survival drive to store information that is ‘unique’ (and perhaps life-threatening), coupled with your mindset at the conclusion of an experience. The storage of the final scene serves to accentuate the past experience's outcome, a sort of summary of the summary.

Fast forward and once again we have the familiar story of modern people at the mercy of outdated brain programming. So even something as mundane as a stroll down the cereal aisle can kick in a primitive brain heuristic in the best of us.

Factor in the many other studies confirming how our brains tend to build neural wiring for certain behavior patterns, and once built, have a reluctance to abandon it, and you begin to understand why you’re likely to show up at the same restaurant, and buy the same breakfast cereal you bought last time.

As far as you reading this blog again, the 'Peak-end rule’ suggests it behooves me to finish with a zippy and memorable ending.

So stay tuned for next week's post, where I’ll tell you how you can win a million dollars without even getting out of bed. (Did I mention my next blog is titled “The Brain on Lying”?)


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