Episode 103: Peak-End Rule


Have you ever had a terrible meal that was completely transformed by an amazing dessert? How about a great movie that was ruined by a bad ending? Why do these moments have the power to stick out in our memories, and change otherwise good or bad experiences?

It's down to a behavioral science principle known as the Peak-end Rule. 

In this episode, we’ll explore the Peak-end Rule, and talk about how we can use it to our advantage in business, marketing, and experience design.

Episode Transcript

0:00:00.0 Jennifer Clinehens: This week on Choice Hacking.

0:00:03.6 Daniel Kahneman: I'd like to start with an example of somebody who had a question and answer session after one of my lectures reported a story, end up with a story. He said he had been listening to a symphony, and it was absolutely glorious music, and at the very end of the recording, there was a dreadful screeching sound. And then he added, really quite emotionally, "It ruined the whole experience." But it hadn't. What it had ruined were the memory of the experience. He had had the experience. He had had 20 minutes of glorious music. They counted for nothing because he was left with a memory, the memory was ruined, and the memory was all that he had gotten to keep.

0:00:47.7 JC: That's Nobel Prize-winning researcher, Daniel Kahneman, talking about how our mind and our memories work. He posits that we have two internal selves: The thinking self and the remembering self, that work together to create the story of our most memorable moments. What Kahneman is describing is the basis of what's known as the peak-end rule, and understanding it can help us design emotional and unforgettable customer experiences.

0:01:13.0 JC: I'm Jennifer Clinehens, and you're listening to Choice Hacking, a podcast about applying behavioral science and psychology to business, from customer experience to product design, marketing and more. Join me today as we examine the peak-end rule and how it guides customer behavior, emotions, memories and choices.


0:01:44.6 JC: But before we get started, let's give a shoutout to the company whose support helps bring you this podcast, Audible. Since you're enjoying a podcast right now, I'm gonna take a guess that you love listening, and maybe if you're like me, you love listening to audiobooks as well as podcasts. Well, now, more than ever, audio content is becoming many people's preferred way to learn, connect and be entertained. Check out choicehacking.com/audible to get your free 30-day trial of Audible Plus. And don't forget, you can get exclusive episodes of the Choice Hacking podcast when you become a member on choicehacking.com. When you subscribe, you'll get access to the Choice Hacking content vault, subscriber only podcast episodes, online courses, webinars, a quarterly book club and more. Check out choicehacking.com/subscribe for details. Now, on with the show.


0:02:45.2 JC: Our brains are amazing things, but they can't capture every single moment of our lives. Think back to your last birthday celebration, for example. Now chances are, you can't remember every second, but there are probably a few stand-out moments you do remember, like your loved ones singing Happy Birthday while you waited to blow out the candles on your birthday cake. So if we can't remember every moment, every sensation and every detail, how does our brain decide what to remember? Well, as Daniel Kahneman explained, the moment where we're at our emotional peak and the end of the experience are the two key moments that create our memory of an experience. And this is the essence of the peak-end rule, which states very simply that people judge and remember an experience based on how they felt at its peak and at its end, not the average of every single moment of the experience.

0:03:34.9 JC: For brands, this is great news. It means you can greatly affect a customer's opinion of your business by managing just two points that punch above their weight, rather than micro-managing every single second of an experience. You've probably experienced this in your everyday life in one way or another. For instance, have you ever watched a good movie with a terrible ending? Take the films of M Night Shyamalan, for instance.


0:04:04.5 JC: He's well-known for including plot twists in his movies, and when he sticks the landing, people absolutely adore his films, but when he doesn't, it spawns hate, memes, and Internet ridicule. Take The Sixth Sense, for instance. So beware, I'm about to spoil a 21-year-old movie, just like I just spoiled a bunch of people's day by reminding them that The Sixth Sense was released over two decades ago.

0:04:27.5 JC: The twist in The Sixth Sense is legendary, a simple story of a psychologist played by Bruce Willis and his young client, played by Haley Joel Osment, who claims now famously that he can see dead people. But in the third act, there's a twist that reframes the entire film. It turns out the psychologist is one of those dead people that Haley Joel Osment's character can see, but for most of the movie, Bruce Willis' character and the audience don't know he's dead.

0:05:00.3 JC: The movie was a huge hit. And everyone was talking about how shocking the twist was. If you asked them to recall much more about the movie, they tended to be fuzzy on the details, other than Haley Joel Osment whispering, "I see dead people," which is arguably the emotional peak of the film, most people can't seem to remember too many details about The Sixth Sense. The peak and the end were just too powerful.

0:05:23.3 JC: Now, on the other hand, M Night Shyamalan has more than a few movies that illustrate what can go wrong when the twist at the end of the movie fails. Take his movie The Happening, starring Mark Wahlberg, for example.

0:05:38.9 Speaker 3: "What? No!"

0:05:41.3 JC: Between the terrible twist and Wahlberg's unfortunate performance, The Happening nearly killed off M Night Shyamalan's career. And if you compare the reviews of these two movies, it's pretty evident that critics and audiences have very different memories and opinions of The Sixth Sense than they did of The Happening. The Sixth Sense has almost unanimously positive reviews while The Happening was panned pretty universally. In fact, Nigel Floyd, a reviewer from Time Out, described the peaks and ends of The Happening this way: "At first, a great deal happens, then nothing much happens for quite sometime, then something so underwhelming happens that one is left wondering, 'Did that really just happen?'"


0:06:32.5 JC: So what does all this have to do with the customer experience in a store or on a website? Well, first of all, the peak-end rule can help us discover moments where a little bit of improvement can deliver a lot of impact, whether that's in a movie or in a mobile app.


0:06:52.6 JC: So for example, Disneyland and Disney World manage the peaks and ends of their experiences masterfully.


0:07:04.3 JC: Disney Parks know that when families visit, parents see the experience through the eyes of their children, so the better an experience you can make the park for kids, the better the experience for the parents as well. Technology like Magic Bands can create moments of magic for kids by providing data to the park employees. This connected technology secretly lets characters know if it's a child's birthday, and can even tell them their name, so characters can smile and say, "Hi, Jaden," when the kids are approaching. Disney also avoids a big mistake in applying peak-end, and that's not being aware of where the true ending of an experience is. Disney knows that the end of their experience is actually not when people walk out of the park. The true end of an experience is when you start looking through the photos you took. So to manage this true end, Disney and Kodak undertook an intensive study to understand what colors in the park would make better backgrounds in photos. Disney then designed the park paths in these colors in order to make the photos of the experience more emotionally resonant to guests.

0:08:09.4 JC: Now, the second thing peak-end can do is help us maximize the potential of our touchpoints and our customer journey. For example, researchers discovered that television commercials that create positive feelings are more highly rated by viewers if there are peaks of intensity, and the commercial ends on a positive note. So to apply this yourself, I'd first recommend creating a customer journey map. If you don't know what that is, basically, it's a visual representation of what your customers think, feel and do when interacting with your business. A key part of any journey map is the emotional journey, so it's a chart that tracks how happy or unhappy customers are at key points in your experience. Now, that's where peak-end comes in. When you identify that high or low emotional peak, prioritize it, dive into it and start experimenting, test and learn until it's at peak effectiveness, because when it is, it will deliver outsized results.

0:09:08.1 JC: And when it comes to finding the true end of your experience, ask yourself, "Where are our customers reflecting on their experience?" Is it when a waiter tells them thank you and leaves a mint with their check? Or is it further down the road, like in our Disney example, when they're reminiscing on the last experience they had with us? So take some time to discover these peaks and ends in your experience. As author and activist Maya Angelou put it, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."


0:09:50.9 JC: Thank you for listening to the Choice Hacking podcast. If you enjoyed the show, please consider checking out my book, Choice Hacking, available on any major Internet book retailer like Amazon, Apple, Kobo and Google Books, and in audiobook form on Amazon and Audible. You can even download the first chapter free if you visit choicehacking.com/freechapter.

0:10:13.6 JC: As always, you can find me, Jen Clinehens, on Twitter, @choicehacking, or follow Choice Hacking on LinkedIn or Instagram. Until next time.



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