Undercover Economist

How the sense of an ending shapes memory

‘Composers, novelists and film directors try to end on a high. Restaurants keen to manipulate their online reviews have found a similar trick’

Many years ago, I listened to a string quartet perform a challenging piece of contemporary music. The piece, we were told, represented a journey of suffering and redemption. It would descend into discordant screeching for nearly 20 minutes before finally resolving harmoniously. The small concert hall was packed — there were even people seated on stage behind the performers — so there was little choice but to stick it out.

Everything unfolded as promised. The performance sounded like a succession of cats being tossed into a food processor. Eventually, though, the dissonance became resonance, the chaos became calm. It was beautiful.

But then came a sound that had not been in the score; the electronic peal of a mobile phone rang out across the tranquil auditorium. To make matters worse, the beeping arpeggios were emerging from the pocket of an audience member who was sitting on the stage. He was so close to the performers that he could easily have been downed by a solid backhand swing with the viola. It must have been tempting.

The music had been ruined. But it’s curious that 20 minutes of listening can be redeemed or destroyed by what happened in a few moments at the conclusion.

Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and Nobel laureate, tells a similar story about a man enraptured by a symphony recording that is ruined by a hideous screech — a scratch on the vinyl — in the final moments.

“But the experience was not actually ruined,” writes Kahneman, “only the memory of it.” After all, both concerts were almost complete when interrupted. The lived experience had been unblemished until the final moments. The remembered experience was awful.

When we recall things — a concert, a holiday, a bout of flu — we do not play out the recollection minute by minute like a movie in our minds. Instead, we tell ourselves a little story about what happened. And these stories have their own logic in which the order of events makes a difference.

Consider Jenson Button’s 2009 season in Formula One. The British racing driver easily outpaced his rivals in the first seven races of the season, building a vast lead. Then, as the relative performance of the cars changed, Button failed to win any of the remaining 10 races. His rival Sebastian Vettel couldn’t quite catch him, though, and Button became champion with a limp fifth place finish in the penultimate race. One pundit defended Button against his many doubters with the feeble line: “There have been many less gifted world champions than Jenson Button.”

But imagine if the order of results had been reversed. After being beaten in almost every one of the first 10 races by Vettel, Button would have mounted a magnificent comeback, sealing his world championship with a victory in the final race. The same results in a different order would have told a very different story. And the story matters.

Kahneman and his colleagues have run a number of experiments testing these ideas. In one, people were asked to hold one hand in painfully cold water for 60 seconds. Some subjects then had to keep their hand in the water for another 30 seconds while a hidden valve released fractionally warmer water. So, which experience was worse: 60 seconds of pain, or 60 seconds of pain followed by 30 seconds of somewhat lesser pain? The experimental subjects preferred the longer experience with the happier ending.

In another study with Don Redelmeier, Kahneman surveyed colonoscopy patients every 60 seconds while they underwent a distinctly uncomfortable procedure, producing a minute-by-minute record of just how painful the colonoscopy was. Then, Redelmeier and Kahneman asked the patients “the total amount of pain” they had experienced. The responses were strongly correlated with the average of two factors: the pain experienced at the worst moment, and the pain experienced at the end.

This is summarised as the “peak-end” rule. Our memories of experiences are governed by — of course — the most memorable things about them. Had the doctor left the probe inside the patient, without prodding around, for an extra 10 minutes, the final moments wouldn’t have felt too bad and the entire memory of the procedure would have been less grim.

No wonder Jenson Button’s 2009 season seemed mediocre: his peak performances were great but his final performances less so. And no wonder that disruptive mobile phone was so aggravating: since the best moment of the music came at the end, one ringtone managed to spoil both the peak and the end.

Of course, it is no coincidence that the best bit of the music was at the finale: composers, like novelists and film directors, try to end on a high.

Restaurants keen to manipulate their online reviews have discovered a similar trick: twice recently I’ve dined at restaurants in unfamiliar towns that were highly rated on TripAdvisor. Both times, the food was good but unremarkable. Both times, the proprietor pressed gifts upon us as we left — a free glass of grappa, a nice corkscrew. It seems that when people thought back and wrote their reviews, they remembered this pleasant send-off. That makes sense: if you want people to remember you fondly, it’s best to engineer things so that the last thing they remember of you is something other than signing a bill.

Written for and first published at ft.com.