The Peak-End Rule: How to Conquer Any Bad Day (Or Even a Colonoscopy)
By Heath Shive
It doesn't matter how a day starts, it only matters how the day ends.
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 (Jim's love interest) falls asleep on his shoulder. Jim is spellbound.
Jim concludes to the camera that it was “not a bad day.”
What does this have to do with bad days and colonoscopies?
They all used the peak-end rule of psychology.
To the science!
The Peak-End Rule
The peak-end rule was coined by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Barbara Fredrickson, and it is about how we summarize an experience.
How we remember an experience boils down to 2 criteria: (1) how the experience feels at its peak, whether at its best or worst, and (2) 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 judged better.
A Not-So-Bad Colonoscopy
A colonoscopy is a notoriously unpleasant experience. In the described study, two groups were given a colonoscopy.
Daniel Kahneman, Joel Katz, and Donald Redelmeier performed lab study with colonoscopies to examine the peak-end rule.
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 colonoscopy, but the second group had a milder ending.
Why We Need Fairy Tale Endings and Dessert
The peak-end rule is basically telling us that it doesn’t matter how something starts, it’s the ending that is more important.
Our brains aren’t rational computers. Our brains are slimy bags of instincts. So play to your instinct.
There's a rule to life here.
Jim’s day was "not a bad day” after Pam slept on his shoulder.
If you squeeze an orange too hard, the juice turns bitter. Stay at a party too long, and you'll leave bored. We end a meal with a dessert, not...brussel sprouts.
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.