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Mental Models
Featured Models

Peak-End Heuristic

How was your day today? What was your last holiday like? How would you rate your last online shopping experience? Would you go back to that restaurant? And would you recommend that company you used to work at?  You might be surprised to discover that your response to all of these questions will likely be impacted by the Peak-End Heuristic.  The Peak-End Heuristic, or Peak-End Rule, describes your tendency to evaluate past experiences by focusing on the most intense, or peak, moments as well as the end moments of an experience, rather than the experience as a whole.  That means that you'll prioritise 'peak' and 'end' memories over the net pain/gain or even the duration of pain/gain over the entire experience. EXPERIENCING SELF vs REMEMBERING SELF.  If you’ve explored behavioural economics and models such as Daniel Kahneman’s Fast and Slow Thinking, you’ll already know that we are fundamentally irrational beings whose judgement can’t be trusted.  Kahneman explains this when discussing happiness, making the point that there is “a confusion between experience and memory; basically, it's between being happy in your life, and being happy about your life.”  He illustrates this further with the example of a man listening to a ‘glorious symphony’ only to hear screeching at the end which, according to the man, ‘ruined his experience.’ Kahneman points out that the screeching did not impact the preceding 20-minute experience, rather it ruined the man’s memory of his experience.  MEMORY IS ABOUT SNAPSHOTS AND NARRATIVES.  Your ‘experiencing self’ is all about the moment, which quickly passes. Meanwhile, Kahneman points out that your ‘remembering self’ is a storyteller that creates a narrative to represent your past experience. Such a narrative relies on selected ‘snapshots’ of that experience rather than a moment-to-moment analysis. Further, the Peak-End Heuristic explains that those selected snapshots are disproportionately drawn from the intense, or peak, and end moments of the experience.  USEFUL… AND A BIAS. The Peak-End Heuristic, like all heuristics, is often presented as a bias. That's a fair call because, as a heuristic, it’s an occasionally useful mental shortcut that allows us to decide and act fast, that ultimately can’t be trusted to deliver accuracy nor rationality.  PAINFUL EXPERIENCES.   Let’s talk colonoscopies.  I know that you don’t want to but, like a colonoscopy itself, this is likely to be a slightly painful experience that reveals invaluable and actionable information by the end.  Let’s say that you had to have a colonoscopy tomorrow. Which of the following would you choose:  Option A: a painful colonoscopy for a standard amount of time.  Option B: the identical experience as Option A, plus an additional three minutes where the scope remained inserted but stationary, so was less painful for that extra period.   Knowing what you now know about this model, you could determine that while your ‘experiencing self’ would find Option B more frustrating and longer in the moment, after the fact, it’s likely that your ‘remembering self’ will prefer the longer option with the gentler end. Indeed that's what Kahneman et al found in their 1996 study — view the In Practice section for more.  OTHER APPLICATIONS.  Applying the Peak-End Heuristic might help to explain why:  There are women who have more than one child, despite the intensity of giving birth! Though admittedly endorphins help with that also.  Large retailers such as Ikea will often serve food such as hotdogs and ice cream at the cash register to end your shopping experience on a high note.  When you remember an intense ride you took at Disneyland you focus on the thrill of the scariest moment and the satisfaction of getting through it rather than the frustration of the long line beforehand. Positive stories at a funeral help reframe your memories of a lost one, even if they frustrated you during life. In a study of student feedback, students received two negative feedback assessments, with one being longer finishing with slightly less negative feedback at the end. They reported this longer version as easier to deal with. According to another study, longer vacations do not necessarily create more positive memories than short ones — with the main determinant being the most memorable events rather than duration.  A messy break up with someone will potentially cast a negative light on your whole relationship.  Restaurants often give away a free dessert or chocolate at the end of a meal.  Intense workout classes often finish with a simple, even relaxing routine. Despite amazing ratings during the first seven seasons, many people are still bitter about the Game of Thrones… I mean seriously, what was with Dany at the end, right? BUT IT’S COMPLICATED.  Remembering the Map vs Territory model, it’s always worth putting forward a sceptical voice, and that voice has a few things to say here. For example, what about the power of first impressions? The influence of expectations or emotions? These are all complicating factors that you can explore more via the Limitations section below. IN YOUR LATTICEWORK.  I’ve already positioned this model as part of behavioural economics and in the context of Fast and Slow Thinking. Some particularly related heuristics include the Representativeness Heuristic that explains how you rely on existing mental models to judge experiences; the Recency Heuristic which favours recent events over historic ones; and the Availability Heuristic, which is an over-reliance on ‘top of mind information.’ Use this model to create impact by combining it with Journey Mapping to design effective experiences that prioritise ‘extreme’ and end moments, perhaps even applying the Pareto Principle to focus on those extremes rather than trying to deal with every small ‘bump’.  In relation to team collaboration, combine this model with the 5 Stages of Teaming to ensure you adequately invest in the too-often neglected ‘adjourning’ stage. Apply it in storytelling by combining it with the Hero’s Journey, and ensuring that you ‘end early’, immediately after the satisfaction of resolving key points of conflict. You might also consider how to combine the Peak-End Heuristic with change management models such as ADKAR, and even Agile Scrum rituals such as retros to help influence people’s view of a finished sprint and maintain motivation moving forward.  AND, JUST FOR FUN...

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