The peak-end theory is a psychological rule in which an experience or event is judged based on how we perform at the peak (the most intense point) and at the end of the experience or event, whether pleasant or unpleasant, rather than the experience as a whole.
The theory was founded by Dr. Daniel Kahneman. He has developed and tested this theory in a variety of situations. The theory can be applied in many aspects of our lives.
A study was done by Daniel Kahneman, Barbara Fredrickson, Charles Schreiber, and Donald Redelmeier and provided revolutionary proof for the peak-end theory. In this research, participants engaged in two experiences: short and long trial. In the short trial, they soaked their hands in water at 14oC for 60 seconds. In the long trial, the same participants soaked their hands in water at 14oC for 60 seconds and kept their hands under water for extra 30s as the water temperature gradually raised to 15oC. When the researchers asked the participants to choose which trial to repeat, the majority of participants chose the long trial.
The result showed that duration plays a role in the retrospective experience of aversive experience. The researchers concluded that the participants picked the long trial because “they liked the memory of it better than the alternative (or disliked it less), not because they were willing to suffer the sake of obtaining a more favorable memory.”
Another study assessed the patients’ memories of painful medical treatments, specifically colonoscopy and lithotripsy. The researchers examined the patients’ evaluations of the total pain intensity of the procedure. Then they related these evaluations to real-time recording obtained during the experience. The results showed the discomfort judgments were strongly correlated with the peak intensity of pain and with the intensity of pain during the last 3 minutes of the procedure. The finding is consistent with the peak-end theory. You can also read the article for free here.
There is also an expansion on this study. In this study, patients undergoing colonoscopy were randomly assigned into two groups: one had a typical procedure while the other group had the tip of the colonoscope rest in the rectum for extra 3 minutes, which was uncomfortable.
The group who had the longer procedure rated their experiences as less unpleasant than the other group. The researchers explained the result as “Patients who undergo similar examinations, except that the ending is extended allowing the pain to subside gradually, may recall the procedure relatively more favorably (less unfavorably).” This result also implied that physicians might wish to be especially gentle at the end of such procedures. The pdf file is available here.
Many studies have proven the applications of the peak-end theory in the medical field. The results suggest that patients prefer longer medical procedures with a period of gradually decreased discomfort rather than shorter procedures. This will affect the memories and the patients will most likely to repeat the procedures later in life.
Does this theory affect someone’s desire to stay in their job? It was proven that we tend to recall either the most recent situations or the peak moments (either good or bad). If so, can this theory improve job satisfaction?
Dr. Adam Fraser wrote an article about how we can implement this in the workplace. Managers are encouraged to create positive moments for their staff as well as treat them pleasantly when they leave. Using the peak-end theory, we can affect someone’s opinions and perhaps they will recommend the company to someone else.
The peak-end theory can be applied in a variety of settings, whether it is the workplace or our relationships. When looking back, we won’t remember our feelings throughout an event or experience, but rather our emotions at the peak and end of that experience. We can implement this theory in our everyday life with our coworkers, employers and even our partners and friends.
Educators and teachers can also benefit from this concept. The process of learning will be more efficient and exciting, rather than mandatory. Knowing how to implement this concept can effectively impact our memories and thus, every experience will become more enjoyable.
If you want to know more about this concept, check out our article on Daniel Kahneman and his TED talk here.
Kahneman, D., Fredrickson, B., Schreiber, C., & Redelmeier, D. (n.d.). WHEN MORE PAIN IS PREFERRED TO LESS:. Adding A Better End. Psychological Science, 4(6), 401-405.
Redelmeier, D., & Kahneman, D. (n.d.). Patients’ Memories Of Painful Medical Treatments: Real-time And Retrospective Evaluations Of Two Minimally Invasive Procedures. Pain, 3-8.
Redelmeier, D., Katz, J., & Kahneman, D. (2013). Memories Of Colonoscopy: A Randomized Trial. Pain 104 , 187-194.
Fraser, A. (2013). Peak Well And End Well. Human Capital Magazine, 48-49.