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In an episode of “The Office” – entitled “Diversity Day” (Season 1, Ep. 2) – the character Jim is unable to close a very important sale because of his boss Michael Scott’s obnoxious handling of a sensitivity seminar. Jim loses his sale…to his office rival Dwight! It’s an awful defeat for Jim. But by the end of the working day, Pam (with whom Jim is in love) falls asleep on his shoulder. Jim is spellbound. Jim concludes to the camera that it was “not a bad day.”
In an episode of “Seinfeld” – entitled “The Burning” (Season 9, Ep. 16) – George manages to increase his popularity at his workplace by leaving right after he scores a funny joke or witticism. Jerry Seinfeld remarks that this is the trick of successful comedians – to leave when you’re at a high point.
What does this have to do with bad days and colonoscopies? They all used the peak-end rule of psychology.
The Peak-End Rule
There is a psychological rule about how we summarize an experience – it’s called the “peak-end” rule. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Barbara Fredrickson discovered it. Basically it says that how we remember an experience boils down to two criteria: how the experience feels at its peak (at its best or worst), and how the experience ended.
Barry Schwartz – author of the fantastic book “The Paradox of Choice” - cites a lab study where participants were asked to listen to two terribly loud noises. The first noise was awful, but lasted only 8 seconds. The second noise was the same as the first and also lasted 8 seconds…but it was followed by another 8 seconds of unpleasant noise that wasn’t as loud.
The vast majority of the participants chose the second noise – despite the fact that it was unpleasant as the first, and also twice as long (16 seconds vs. 8 seconds).
How does that make sense? They’re both terrible to hear and the second noise was twice as long. But the participants preferred the second noise because of the “peak-end” rule. Both the first and second noise had the same “peak” of awfulness…but the second noise ended with a noise that wasn’t nearly as bad. Therefore, the second noise was considered better, relatively speaking.
A Not-So-Bad Colonoscopy
Daniel Kahneman, Joel Katz, and Donald Redelmeier performed another lab study - with colonoscopies. A colonoscopy is a notoriously unpleasant experience. In the described study, two groups were given a colonoscopy. One group’s procedure was standard. The second group’s procedure was different.
In the second group, after the colonoscopy was finished, the scope was left inside – unmoving – for 20 additional seconds. Unmoving, the probe was not as unpleasant as a moving probe. The second group rated their experience slightly better than the first group did.
Both groups had the same bad “peak,” but the second group had a milder ending.
Why We Need Fairytale Endings and Dessert
My Dad once told me, “Leave the party while you’re still having a good time.”
The peak-end rule is basically telling us that it doesn’t matter how something starts, it’s the ending that is more important.
It’s important to remember that our brains aren’t rational computers, but rather our brains are slimy bags of instincts. The great thing about Schwartz’s book “The Paradox of Choice” is that he shows his readers more of these irrational instincts like the peak-end rule, and then Schwartz gives us rational strategies to optimize our happiness by combating these instincts.
Jim’s bad day was "not bad” after Pam slept on his shoulder. George trained himself to leave someone’s company while he was ahead. My Dad says to leave the party while you’re still having a good time. If you squeeze an orange too hard, the juice turns bitter.
Keep in mind the happy ending. Having a bad day? Put something you love at the end of the day. A hot bath. A basket of chicken wings. A bowl of ice cream. Watch a movie with someone you care about or read a beautiful story to your children before they go to bed.
And as you read to your kids, note that the story has a happy ending. We love happy endings. It’s our instinct. It’s called the peak-end rule.
Kahneman, Daniel; Fredrickson, Barbara L.; Schreiber, Charles A.; Redelmeier, Donald A. (1993). "When More Pain Is Preferred to Less: Adding a Better End". Psychological Science. 4 (6): 401–405.
Redelmeier, Donald A; Katz, Joel; Kahneman, Daniel (2003). "Memories of colonoscopy: a randomized trial". Pain. 104 (1-2): 187–194.
Schwartz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice - Why More Is Less. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.