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Peak Experiences

I’m reading a book called The Paradox of Choice by Schwartz. It’s a fun, breezy read, like an extended version of an Internet essay. I’m learning a number of things from it, but one idea that stands out is the way we remember experiences. The model is called ‘peak-end,’ because we remember the peak of an experience (whether good or bad) and the end.

In the book, they give the example of a short one-week vacation with very elevated high points, vs. a longer, three week vacation that isn’t as intense, but is pleasant and relaxing (at a slightly lower level) the whole time. You’d think the second vacation would be preferable to the first one, but it’s the other way around; in people’s memories, the first vacation is preferable to the second.

They give the odd but memorable example of a colonoscopy. One group of patients had a colonscopy that lasted an hour, and was painful the whole time. A second group did this too, with an addition at the end: after the painful hour was up, there was a less painful 5-minute interval that capped it. The first hour was exactly the same, for both patients groups; logically, the second group (which had that painful hour PLUS a less painful interval added on) should have the worst memory.  In tests, though, the second group had a slightly better recollection of the experience, and was more willing to sign up for follow-ups in the future.  It’s the ‘peak-end’ phenomenon – the peak and the end are the important parts, and distort the rest of the experience.

So what does that mean for how we plan our experiences? First, make sure that the ‘peak’ is high – that there’s at least one intensely happy moment for everyone involved. Second, make sure that the end is good, even if the part in between is terrible: as long as the peak is high and the end is satisfactory, that middle part will be forgotten. The Paradox of Choice is full of factoids like this.


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