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The Peak End Rule, or, The Secret to a Winning Colonoscopy

January 2, 2015

 

When we consider ourselves as individuals, we tend to think in terms of a single entity with agency. In essence, I take on information through my five senses and then use my memories to inform, guide and, perhaps most importantly, predict what will happen next—or, more accurately, what might happen next.

 

So those recollections, the stories we tell ourselves to record those experiences, are what fundamentally help us both understand ourselves and the world around us. 

 

This all makes perfect sense, except for one problem: that’s not actually how it works, according to Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize-winning economist.

 

Kahneman says the two systems—experiencing and remembering—are not in sync. In a series of experiments, he and his team proved that your experiencing self perceives the world moment by moment, but your remembering self follows a strange phenomena that Kahneman refers to as the “peak end rule.” 

 

Here’s how it works: our remembering selves tend to recall the extremes of a given experience without accurately recording how long it took, or how it generally felt while it was happening.

 

Imagine watching your favorite team play a near perfect game, relishing every second, and then in the last five minutes, the opposition mounts an incredible come-from-behind charge that knocks your team out of contention.

 

If your experiencing self and remembering self worked the same way, you’d average out your second-by-second feelings—the 98% of the game you were happy and the 2% of the game you were disappointed—and record the whole affair as having been 98% a good time.

 

But any sports fan knows that’s not how it works. The final moments of the game carry a disproportionate power, like a shadow that blots out all of your team’s great efforts over the preceding hours of play.

 

And it’s not just sports; Kahneman reports that in experiments involving colonoscopies, the final moments will totally color your notion of the entire procedure. If it’s by and large painful, but the pain decreases at the end, you’ll report it wasn’t so bad. Conversely, if it didn’t hurt that much until the final few minutes, you’re more likely to consider it an exceptionally bad experience.

 

Our brains are wired not to give equal weight to every detail but instead to record those moments that stand out for us. Our remembering selves are therefore in the business of altering reality by way of a neat and tidy editing job. 

 

And the end result is a kind of highlight film bringing you “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” From your brain’s point of view, that’s the best game in town.

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