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Saving the Last for Best: A Positivity Bias for End Experiences



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Saving the last for best:
A positivity bias for end experiences
Ed O’Brien & Phoebe C. Ellsworth
University of Michigan
In press, Psychological Science
Saving the last for best:
A positivity bias for end experiences
Imagine your favorite restaurant is closing and your final meal tastes especially
delicious. Is it actually tasty, or is it enjoyable because you know it is the last one?
Previous research suggests that salient endings to events may foster more positive
attitudes toward them. For example, students reminded of graduation feel greater
affection for their school (Ersner-Hershfield, Mikels, Sullivan, & Carstensen, 2008) and
people who consider relocating value hometown friends more highly (Fredrickson &
Carstensen, 1990). However, “lasts” are also common in everyday life and need not
involve significant experiences. In a typical day, Linda might read the last chapter of a
book, eat the last bite of lunch, listen to the last symposium speaker, and give the last kiss
goodnight. And she may assess the quality of each (e.g., “How interesting was that final
talk?”). Serial positioning may affect such assessments when made salient because people
are highly sensitive to temporal contexts, which influence many evaluations besides
major life episodes (Aaker, Rudd, & Mogilner, 2011; Levine, 1997; McGrath & Tschan,
2004). Thus, just as graduations trigger warmer perceptions of school, people might
judge everyday “last” events more positively because they more generally signal an
“end” to the experience.
To test this possibility, we recruited participants to eat different flavors of
chocolates one by one. We predicted that (i) the last chocolate would be more enjoyable
when its finality was salient, (ii) it would taste better than the others irrespective of
flavor, and (iii) the experiment would be more enjoyable overall because endings drive
global evaluations (e.g., duration neglect: Redelmeier & Kahneman, 1996); if the last
chocolate tastes better, the overall experience should seem better.
Fifty-two students (28 males), recruited individually in public campus areas,
participated in an alleged taste test of new Hershey Kisses containing local ingredients.
Unbeknownst to participants, they would eat 5 unnamed chocolate flavors: milk, dark,
crème, caramel, and almond. An experimenter, blind to the hypothesis, pulled a random
flavor from a hidden pocket inside a full bag of candy (to conceal the true number) that
contained 1 of each. Participants then ate and rated it from 0 (not at all enjoyable) to 10
(extremely enjoyable). They also described each flavor so we could record actual orders.
Participants were randomly assigned to the “next” or “last” condition. In the
“next” condition, the experimenter said, “Here is your next chocolate,” before each
chocolate after the first. In the “last” condition, the experimenter followed this script but
said, “Here is your last chocolate,” before the fifth chocolate. Thus, participants were
either unaware or aware of which chocolate was last.
Participants then indicated which chocolate they liked best and how much they
enjoyed the experiment overall, followed by a manipulation check and demographic
questions. Finally, they were funnel-debriefed (none indicated suspicion).
First,1 was the fifth chocolate more enjoyable when described as “last” rather than
“next”? Yes. “Last” participants rated the fifth chocolate better (M=8.18, SD=1.87) than
“next” participants (M=6.26, SD=2.30), t(43)=3.07, p=.004, d=0.92, liking it more than
any other chocolate. As expected, ratings of Chocolates 1-4 did not differ by condition,
ts<1.00 (see Figure 1).2
Second, were “last” chocolates preferred to others? Yes. The majority of “last”
participants chose the fifth chocolate as their favorite (64%), significantly more than
“next” participants (22%), !2(4)=9.95, p=.04.
Third, was the experiment more enjoyable overall when it ended with “last”
chocolates? Yes. As predicted, the effect of condition on overall enjoyment was mediated
by ratings of the end chocolate, !=.38, p=.016. Thus, the experiment was rated more
enjoyable by “last” participants (M=8.73, SD=1.42) than “next” participants (M=7.65,
SD=1.70), t(43)=2.30, p=.026, d=0.69.
Endings are powerful. Long painful experiences that end relatively pleasantly are
remembered better than short painful experiences that do not (Redelmeier & Kahneman,
1996). A short life that ends on a high note seems better than a long life that ends in
mediocrity (Diener, Wirtz, & Oishi, 2001). Moral behavior at the end of life outweighs
immoral behavior leading up to it (Newman, Lockart, & Keil, 2010). And significant end
events (e.g., graduation) promote positive event-related experiences (Kurtz, 2008).
This research demonstrates the power of endings in everyday life and in real-time.
Participants who knew they were eating the final chocolate of a taste test enjoyed it more,
preferred it to other chocolates, and rated the overall experience as more enjoyable. These
results are especially intriguing because the “end” was somewhat artificial and
impermanent (e.g., participants could still eat chocolates after finishing our experiment).
This suggests that the same experience becomes better simply because people are aware
that it is the last in a series, which influences subsequent evaluations and preferences.
This observation probably extends far beyond Hershey Kisses. For example, the last book
of a series or speaker in a symposium may receive unwarranted praise; research subjects
may give overly-positive responses on last tasks of experiments; and last job applicants
or students (e.g., final papers to grade) may look especially qualified.
Such implications suggest many directions for future research. Why, exactly, are
everyday experiences enhanced upon signaling their end (e.g., evolved appreciation for
anticipated scarcity: Kurzban & Leary, 2001), and through what mechanisms (e.g.,
selective attention: Carstensen & Mikels, 2005; increased savoring: Quoidbach, Dunn,
Petrides, & Mikolajczak, 2010)? What are potential boundaries (e.g., hedonic adaptation:
Frederick & Loewenstein, 1999) or parameters (e.g., positive versus negative
Until then, consider the cheaper option during your final visit to a restaurant – it
may taste just as delicious as any other.
1. Seven participants were eliminated for incorrect manipulation checks (i.e., What
information preceded the fifth chocolate? Next/Last/None/Don’t know).
2. Actual flavors were roughly equal across each position for both conditions,
making it unlikely that “last” participants ate better fifth chocolates by chance.
Nonetheless, 24 additional participants completed the taste test in a set order.
“Almond” was randomly chosen as fifth. Replicating the effect, “last” participants
enjoyed it more (M=7.98, SD=1.71) than “next” participants (M=6.09, SD=1.99),
t(22)=3.31, p<.001, d=1.02.
Aaker, J., Rudd, M., & Mogilner, C. (2011, in press). If money doesn’t make you
happier, consider time. Journal of Consumer Psychology.
Carstensen, L., & Mikels, J. A. (2005). At the intersection of emotion and cognition:
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14(3), 117-121.
Diener, E., Wirtz, D., & Oishi, S. (2001). End effects of rated life quality: The James
Dean effect. Psychological Science, 12(2), 124-128.
Ersner-Hershfield, H., Mikels, J. A., Sullivan, S. J., & Carstensen, L. L. (2008).
Poignancy: Mixed emotional experience in the face of meaningful endings.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(1), 158-167.
Frederick, S., & Loewenstein, G. (1999). Hedonic adaptation. In D. Kahneman, E.
Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology
(pp. 302-329). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Fredrickson, B. L., & Carstensen, L. L. (1990). Choosing social partners: How old age
and anticipated endings make people more selective. Psychology and Aging, 5(3),
Kurtz, J. (2008). Looking to the future to appreciate the present: The benefits of
perceived temporal scarcity. Psychological Science, 19, 1238-1241.
Kurzban, R., & Leary, M. R. (2001). Evolutionary origins of stigmatization: The
functions of social exclusion. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 187-208.
Levine, R. (1997). A geography of time. New York: Basic Books.
McGrath, J. E., & Tschan, F. (2004). Temporal matters in social psychology: Examining
the role of time in the lives of groups and individuals. Washington, DC: American
Psychological Association.
Newman, G. E., Lockhart, K. L., & Keil, F. C. (2010). “End-of-life” biases in moral
evaluations of others. Cognition, 115(2), 343-349.
Quoidbach, J., Dunn, E. W., Petrides, K. V., & Mikolajczak, M. (2010). Money giveth,
money taketh away: the dual effect of wealth on happiness. Psychological
Science, 21(6), 759-763.
Redelmeier, D. A., & Kahneman, D. (1996). Patients’ memories of painful medical
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procedures. Pain, 66(1), 3-8.
Figure 1. Enjoyment across chocolate position and condition. Error bars ±1SE.
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... People naturally feel more positive when they are exposed to a highly positive event (Seta et al., 2008). Thus, negative experiences may produce different effects than positive experiences do (O'Brien and Ellsworth, 2012). ...
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... As to other domains, it has been suggested that a perceived ending may change the behavior of individuals. For example, individuals tend to give higher ratings for the last food sample (O'Brien & Ellsworth 2012). Game theory predicts an "endgame effect", wherein individuals act in a self-interest manner in the final round of a repeated distribution game because there is no opportunity of benefitting to be obtained by cooperating (Normann & Wallace, 2012). ...
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