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Why Do We Care So Much About Endings?

And should we?

Key points

  • When reflecting on experiences, we place emphasis on our memory of the end and peak of the experience.
  • One classic study found that most people preferred a longer painful experience if the least painful part was at the end.
  • In a meta-analysis of 174 results, the end of an experience was a better predictor of later evaluations than alternative predictors.
Source: Reddit
The top comment on a Reddit thread asking for opinions on the current season of The Mandalorian.
Source: Reddit

Two weeks ago, I came across a Reddit thread asking for thoughts about the latest season of Disney+’s The Mandalorian.

The top comment was from someone who basically said they liked it, but they might retroactively change their mind after they find out how the season ends.

It’s not hard to find other examples like this. Consider the backlash that followed the confounding and rushed final season of Game of Thrones. The series, despite being a gargantuan hit that was adored by its obsessive fans, suddenly left many of them questioning how good it really was.

In a way, this line of reasoning is puzzling. How can something you loved suddenly be worse because it ended on a bad note? If you enjoyed something in the past, doesn’t that enjoyment still count even if the experience didn’t end the way you hoped?

The Experiencing Self and the Remembering Self

Logically, it seems the answer to these questions must be no. If the final episode of The Mandalorian Season 3 is dreadful, the experience of watching it won’t reach backward in time and suck the joy out of your past experiences watching the previous seven episodes.

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman coined a useful pair of phrases for talking about this sort of thing: the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self is the version of you who feels things from moment to moment. The remembering self is the version of you reflecting on past experiences. While your experiencing self has the most accurate read on how you feel, your remembering self gets the final word. And your remembering self is subject to the biases and distortions of human memory.

The Peak-End Effect: Why We Care More About Endings

One bias of our remembering self is known as the peak-end effect. When we’re evaluating an experience after the fact, the end of the experience and the peak of the experience (the most exciting or the most painful, for example) have an outsize influence.

In one classic demonstration of the effect led by Daniel Kahneman in 1993, he and his collaborators had 32 male students submerge their hands in cold water, a painful experience. One hand was placed in water at 14 degrees Celsius for 60 seconds; the other hand did the same thing but was followed by an additional 30 seconds as the temperature gradually raised to 15 degrees Celsius (the order of the two trials and which hand was placed in which bucket was swapped for half of the participants).

When asked to choose, the researchers found that 22 participants (69 percent) said they would prefer to repeat the longer trial rather than the shorter one. This was true, even though, objectively, the longer trial caused them more overall pain. When answering a follow-up question, one participant even remarked, “The choice I made doesn’t seem to make much sense.”

The cold water study is just one example with a pretty small and narrow sample, but numerous others have suggested this effect is robust. In 2022, a team of researchers led by Balca Alaybek conducted a meta-analysis of 174 independent results from 122 studies on the peak-end effect. They found that people’s feelings at the end of an experience were strongly correlated with people’s later reports of the experience (a correlation coefficient of r = 0.47) and that this correlation was higher than other possible predictors, like people’s feelings at the beginning of the experience (r = 0.4), or the general trend of people’s feelings, like whether their happiness level was going up or down over time (r = 0.14).

Is it Illogical to Care so Much About Endings?

I started this article by saying that the Reddit commenter’s line of reasoning was puzzling. But is it? In a 2016 study, researchers Stephanie Tully and Tom Meyvis point out that the end bias may actually make sense in situations where endings are especially meaningful. On a TV show, the final episode or season usually provides a resolution to the story. As a result, it may not be accurate to say that people are over-weighting those experiences when forming an impression of the overall experience.

I think more people should embrace their experiencing selves and just enjoy the ride more often. But you shouldn’t feel too bad if you find yourself dunking your hand in ice-cold water for an extra 30 seconds because it was slightly less cold at the end.

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