Have you ever been to a concert and then left thinking the show was a lot better than it was?

Well, this is because of something called the peak-end effect. The peak-end effect shows that what we recall from past experiences is not always accurate.

Per Daniel Kahneman, this stems from a distinction between the ‘experiencing self’, and the ‘remembering self’.

How memory fails us

It may surprise you to learn how biased our memories are. Even when we think we remember facts about an event, our memories are often incomplete and heavily influenced by our feelings at the time.

Our memories of positive and negative experiences seem to be influenced by two factors: how we felt at the time and how the experience ended. Our memories are not averages of our experiences or time spent in a situation.

We tend to observe past experiences through rose-tinted glasses - we remember more about peaks and endings rather than how things were. This has implications for many aspects of life, including consumer behavior, pain tolerance, and motivation levels.

This psychological heuristic explains why we can be irrational in our memory recall. It also implies that our memories are more like snapshots than comprehensive records of facts and events.

In this article, we explore why people use the peak-end effect to judge their memories and discuss its impact on our lives!

What is the Peak-End Rule?

The end of the concert was amazing. The way it began, not as much. But what we recall from past experiences is not always accurate - rather than how things were in general, we tend to remember more about peaks and endings, and use the average of those points to shape our recollection.

We recall our life experiences as a series of snapshots rather than a comprehensive list of events. To form an opinion of the past, our minds quickly average the moments that stand out the most in our memories. The most emotionally intense points of an experience, as well as the end of that experience, are heavily weighted in how we remember an event.

Dr Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel prize-winning psychologist and widely regarded as the founder of behavioural economics, along with his colleague Amos Tversky. The peak-end effect is largely attributed to his work.

His definition is as follows:

“The peak-end rule is a psychological heuristic in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e. its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience.”

‘The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact,' by Chip and Dan Heath, explores this idea.

The Heaths say:

“When people assess an experience, they tend to forget or ignore its length. Instead, they seem to rate the experience based on two key moments: (1) the best or worst moment, known as the peak and (2) the ending [..] What’s indisputable is that when we assess our experiences, we don’t average our minute-by-minute sensations.”

The four elements of a peak moment

According to them, a peak moment must contain at least one of the four elements listed below, with the best having all four:

Elevation: these are happy moments that go beyond the usual course of events due to sensory pleasures and surprises.

Pride: these are the moments that capture us at our best, whether it's a moment of triumph or a moment of bravery.

Insight: these are our finest moments; they transform our perceptions of ourselves and the world and provide a sobering moment of clarity.

Connection: These are moments that are social; for example, weddings. It turns out that the length of an experience has little bearing on the memory that is formed. This is known as discovery duration neglect, according to Kahneman and Fredrickson.

Duration neglect is the psychological recognition that the duration of unpleasant experiences has little bearing on people's judgments of those experiences (Kahneman & Fredrickson 1993).

The peak-end theory is the result of our need to process our thoughts and memories. Our brains are not computer operating systems. It would be useless for us to save every second of our lives into our memory - there's only so much we can process and only so long we can wait to recall necessary memories. So our cognitive processing system develops methods for sorting, integrating, processing, and making more efficient decisions. A by-product of this is the separation of the experiencing self and the remembering self. The way we recall an experience isn't a line-by-line re-enactment (unless it was a particularly traumatizing memory) but a summation.

Impacts of the Peak-End Effect

Popularised by the research of Daniel Kahneman and Barbara Fredrickson, the peak-end effect is a form of cognitive bias impacting how we recall certain events. Due to memory bias and recency bias, we are most likely to recall the most intense moment of stimuli during an event, and the final moment. These two points form a snapshot that characterizes our recollection of the experience.

The peak-end effect can lead to feelings of regret for an activity that had more good moments than bad moments yet overall seemed to produce negative consequences. It can also make events seem worse than they are when people focus only on the ending or focus on the ending and ignore how they felt at its peak. A person's memory of an activity can be influenced by the moment they realize that it is coming to an end.

For example, if a person decides not to do something and then changes their mind at the last minute this will make them more likely to remember their original reasons for not doing it as opposed to all of the benefits from actually going through with it.

A fun example from Nir Eyal is that when we remember the best rollercoaster ride we've been on, our memory snapshot is entirely composed of the best moments of the ride, with zero regard for the hours we may have spent queuing beforehand.

A better example comes from a study where colonoscopy patients were divided into two randomised groups. One group underwent a typical procedure but for the other, the scope was left in their bum for an additional three minutes, prolonging their discomfort. When asked to retrospectively evaluate their experience, the group who underwent the prolonged procedure actually rated it as less uncomfortable than those facing the shorter, more standard one. The prolonged moment of discomfort meant that a 'peak' was less definable. This has no bearing on the pain experienced at the time, but only how it was remembered.

The peak-end rule is a memory bias that affects how people recall past events. Our mental calculus heavily weights intense positive or negative moments (the "peaks") and the end of an experience (the "end"),

In retrospect, periods of discomfort can fade into the rearview mirror. If we can manage the pain, we can manage our memory of it. It comes down to the lens through which we interpret events, the significance we ascribe to them, and the actions we take to modify our experience both in the most intense moments and at the end. This framework can be applied to any tasks that seem arduous.

I believe that without memories there is no life and that our memories should be of happy times. - Lee Radziwil

Can the peak-end rule help you make more good memories?

It's simple: Make peaks and ends.The act of dancing to your favorite song or watching your favorite comedic skit can make you feel intensely happy for a moment. That's all it takes to make peaks. No one remembers having to wait for a concert: only the 30 seconds of pure adrenaline do. It's easier to control the end. Have you ever saved the best for last? This is how you apply the peak-end rule unconsciously. Save the best for last. Or do something fun and energizing before going to bed. Using the peak-end rule allows us to create the best memories. Psychologists have found that reminiscing on happy memories improves our mental health. Memories can help us relax and be happier. Happy memories create a happy life.

The Peak-End Rule in Action

Everyday experiences, both painful and enjoyable, demonstrate the peak-end rule. Here are a few examples of the peak-end effect.

Positive endings can offset a negative experience.

  • One example is childbirth. The peak and end of labor have a greater impact on birth memories than the labor itself. The memory of a baby's birth can outweigh the pain endured during the process.
  • For example, if you attend a concert with poor sound or performance but it ends with your favorite song, you will remember it positively.
  • If you have a bad meal but end it with a delicious dessert, your memory of the meal is likely to be better.
  • A stressful sports season ends with a championship win. Having won a big game, the team is likely to have more positive memories.
  • Funerals are an example of the peak-end rule. Even with a lifetime of memories, we end up hearing positive things about someone, affecting our overall memories.
  • Vacation memories show duration neglect. Extending vacations does not appear to improve memories. A 2-week vacation will produce similar positive memories as a 1-week vacation. So longer vacations aren't always better remembered.

Negative endings can also detract from an overall positive or pleasurable experience.

  • A bad flight home from a vacation can ruin the whole trip, even if the vacation itself was great.
  • Despite a great round of golf, things can go wrong on the 18th. Even if the first 17 holes went well, you are likely to have a bad feeling about the round.
  • A positive date night with your spouse can be ruined by a two-minute argument.
  • Relationship breakups are another common example, as we may recall a painful breakup.
  • A failing grade will taint your overall experience of a class that you mostly enjoyed.
  • Non-ending peak experiences also affect our memory.
  • The memory formed will be influenced by close games with intense moments like scoring big goals or making mistakes.
  • Peak experiences are intense. An example would be someone who is happy in their job but dislikes their boss. If a boss ridicules, yells, or humiliates them, it is likely to affect their memory of the job.
  • Extreme fear will also color our memories. A near miss or a car accident will impact how we remember a road trip regardless of other events.

A Message to Remember

This knowledge of our cognitive biases can help us. It gives us data to improve our future experiences. The research suggests we can create peak points or highlights in our experiences to increase pleasure.

The peak-end theory can help us shape our memories. Fostering positive memories is appealing.

Consider these memory-enhancing suggestions:

  • Try to end on a positive note. Find a positive takeaway from an experience.
  • Avoid dwelling on a situation's flaws. Consider how grateful you will be once you reach the front of the line. If you have bad service at a restaurant, focus on your meal.
  • Try not to let minor annoyances cloud your memory of the whole experience.
  • Much can be reframed to create more positive and intense emotions.

Using the peak-end theory, we can improve our happiness, well-being, and mental health. We hope you enjoyed this article and can use behavioral science to your advantage!

Further Reading


The School of Life


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