I came across the idea of the peak-end rule recently, while reading a book by a psychologist named Daniel Kahneman, author of what I’ve been told is a pretty big-deal popular science work, Thinking Fast & Slow. In it, Kahneman expands upon this cognitive theory, the peak-end rule, which identifies a fascinating gap between two cognitive modes theorized to be in all of us, the experiencing self and the remembering self.
It goes something like this:
Our experiencing self is at the wheel most of the time, taking in encounters and stimuli as they happen moment by moment, in a “psychologically present” constant play that runs in psychological moments that last, on average, about 3 seconds each, one after the other everyday, always on. The huge majority of moments taken in by the experiencing self are forgotten almost the instant they happen.
The remembering self, on the other hand, is the cognitive function that isolates snapshots from our sequence of moments and organizes them into memories of experience, in narratives that form meaning from the stream of cognitive “data” that is the everyday.
Many of our preferences, perspectives, and choices are determined by our remembering self’s interpretation of the experiencing self’s…well…experience.
The crazy thing about the remembering self is that quite a few studies have shown that its remembering, its version of the past, is not only an often highly unreliable account of what the experiencing self actually experienced, it also works in a (kind of embarrassingly) predictable manner, governed, as it is, by the peak-end rule.
The Peak and the End are What Stick
The peak-end rule stems from research conducted in 1996 on two sets of patients undergoing two different versions of a (yikes) colonoscopy. Moment by moment reported pain-levels for the two procedures were visualized like this:
The interesting thing is that when patients were asked to recollect their experiences after the fact, those who underwent Procedure B, which lasted over twice as long and subjected patients to quantifiably more pain, recalled their procedure as less painful as those who experienced Procedure A. Moreover, patients were more likely to choose Procedure B over Procedure A in future treatments.
A number of similar experiments pointed to consistent findings in human cognition: when we remember past experience, it isn’t quantity or duration of moments that define our recollections, but the peak of the experience and the end. Patient A recalled a more painful procedure because memory focused on the two high pain-levels at the peak and end of the experience. Patient B’s memory, in contrast, pinpointed snapshots at the peak and the end, and painted a picture of greatly decreasing levels of pain over the course of the procedure (despite the longer duration and spikes between the peak and the end of the experience).
Applies to Pleasure as Well as Pain
Subsequent studies have shown that the same applies for pleasurable experience. Apparently, memory won’t look favourably on a two week vacation in Paris where you experienced steady moment-to-moment satisfaction with the city. If, on the other hand, you flew in for four days, dealt with food poisoning on the first day before going on a three-day bender with a bunch of locals, that culminated in sharing a dance floor with Mick Jagger the night before you flew out, memory will file this away as a goody. Our memories want to form stories, focusing on moments of peak pleasure and conclusion.
How does this apply to what we do at NGX?
“The same core features appear in the rules of narratives and in the memories of colonoscopies, vacations and films.”
Daniel Kahneman likens the function of memory to narrative structure, where functions of recollection snapshot climax and resolution in a narrative arc:
The peak-end theory is being applied by marketers in the development of brand experiences across all sorts of media, from online encounters with brand narratives to in-store customer experiences. In this context, the peak-end heuristic has directed brand / retail professionals to focus their efforts on the peak and end of any given experience, with the assumption that this is the territory that memory will latch on to and inform our judgment of any given experience after the fact.
Peak-end theory is relevant to us here at NGX in the way it confirms the value of narrative structure in an experiential context and really cements the relationship between story and experience. UI can complement and activate story by designing around “moments of truth,” (http://ui-patterns.com/patterns/Peakend-rule) modeling navigation along a narrative framework, focusing on identifying moments of delight and wow and tying them to key takeaway messages of any given interactive.
-Dan Asfar, Story Lead