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Evaluations of Pleasurable Experiences: The Peak-End Rule

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Abstract

Prior research suggests that the addition of mild pain to an aversive event may lead people to prefer and directly choose more pain over less pain (Kahneman, Fredrickson, Schreiber, & Redelmeier, 1993). Kahneman et al. suggest that pain ratings are based on a combination of peak pain and final pain. Similarly, people rate a happy life that ends suddenly as being better than one with additional years of mild happiness (Diener, Wirtz, & Oishi, 2001), even though the former objectively consists of less pleasure than the latter. Applying these concepts to material goods, we investigated the impact of positivity and timing on the retrospective evaluations of material goods. We found strong evidence that the peak-end rule applies to both material goods and pain.
Copyright 2008 Psychonomic Society, Inc. 96
Kahneman, Fredrickson, Schreiber, and Redelmeier
(1993) found that participants preferred 60 sec of 14ºC
ice water followed by 30 sec of 15ºC ice water to 60 sec
of 14ºC ice water alone. This result is counterintuitive,
since water at both 14ºC and 15ºC is unpleasant. People
seemed to prefer and directly choose more pain over less
pain in this situation. The authors suggested that pain rat-
ings are influenced by the peak pain experienced during
the episode and the final level of pain—the peak–end rule.
The peak–end rule for pain ratings has been confirmed
in several other experiments. Redelmeier and Kahneman
(1996) found that patients rated colonoscopies as less un-
pleasant if an interval of mild pain was added to the end of
the procedure. Patients’ memories of the pain experienced
during a colonoscopy were correlated with predictions
of the peak–end rule (Redelmeier & Kahneman, 1996).
Schreiber and Kahneman (2000) showed that ratings of
unpleasantly loud sounds showed clear peak–end effects.
Fredrickson (2000) reviewed a large number of experi-
ments supporting the peak–end rule. The peak–end rule
yields the counterintuitive result that conditions can read-
ily be arranged in which people prefer and choose a condi-
tion with objectively more pain as long as the episode ends
on a relatively less painful note.
In the realm of positive experiences, Diener, Wirtz, and
Oishi (2001) conducted studies in which participants rated
a wonderful life that ended suddenly as better than one
with the addition of mildly pleasant years. They termed
this the James Dean effect. In addition, television com-
mercials that induce positive feelings are rated more
highly by consumers if the commercials have high peaks
of intensity and strong positive endings (Baumgartner,
Sujan, & Padgett, 1997). Participants in Fredrickson and
Kahneman’s (1993) study viewed a series of video clips
that varied in pleasantness and duration. The data indicate
that people essentially disregard the duration of an affec-
tive episode when making retrospective assessments and
that they heavily rely on just one or two moments in the
episode (Fredrickson & Kahneman, 1993).
Simonson, Carmon, and O’Curry (1994) showed that
in some cases, added features and offered promotions can
lead participants to rate a brand lower, even when the fea-
tures are seen as neutral or positive and the promotions are
completely optional. Their research is not directly relevant
to the peak–end rule in that the information about prod-
ucts, promotions, and/or features was available simulta-
neously rather than sequentially. Further, their research
differed from both previous research on the peak–end rule
and our research in that the presence of the features and
promotions affords inferences about the primary product
that could affect the ratings (e.g., “the product must be
deficient if they have to offer promotions”). Our research
does not afford such inferences.
By extrapolating the various peak–end findings to the
domain of pleasurable goods, we predicted that people
would retrospectively report lower levels of overall plea-
sure for a desirable gift if a positive but less desirable gift
were added to it, even though the addition of this second
gift objectively increases the total worth. In this way, peo-
ple would irrationally rate experiences with objectively less
overall pleasure higher than experiences with objectively
greater overall pleasure. We conducted two experiments in
order to investigate this counterintuitive hypothesis.
EXPERIMENT 1
Method
Over the course of several months, three charitable fundraisers
were conducted at Dartmouth College during which undergraduate
students made monetary donations to nonprofit organizations. All of
the money collected went to the designated charities. Donors were
Evaluations of pleasurable experiences:
The peak–end rule
Am y m. Do, A l e x A n D e r V. r u p e r t , A n D Ge o r G e Wo l f o r D
Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire
Prior research suggests that the addition of mild pain to an aversive event may lead people to prefer and di-
rectly choose more pain over less pain (Kahneman, Fredrickson, Schreiber, & Redelmeier, 1993). Kahneman
et al. suggest that pain ratings are based on a combination of peak pain and final pain. Similarly, people rate a
happy life that ends suddenly as being better than one with additional years of mild happiness (Diener, Wirtz, &
Oishi, 2001), even though the former objectively consists of less pleasure than the latter. Applying these concepts
to material goods, we investigated the impact of positivity and timing on the retrospective evaluations of material
goods. We found strong evidence that the peak–end rule applies to both material goods and pain.
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
2008, 15 (1), 96-98
doi: 10.3758/PBR.15.1.96
G. Wolford, wolford@dartmouth.edu
Pl e a s u r a b l e ex P e r i e n c e s a n d t h e Pe a k –en d ru l e 97
informed that they could enter a “raffle” for a chance to win free
DVDs. All of the donors were later contacted via e-mail and told that
they had won one or two DVDs from the raffle and that they would be
able to choose their free DVDs from the list(s) attached to the e-mail.
Participants were contacted through the e-mail account of a nonprofit
organization in order to eliminate suspicion that the DVD raffle was
part of a psychological experiment.
Participants were presented with the pleasure-inducing opportunity
to select free DVDs from one or two predetermined lists. Two dif-
ferent DVD lists were used: List A consisted of 10 movies that were
rated highly on www.rottentomatoes.com (ratings are based on users’
opinions); List B consisted of 10 movies that were rated positively on
www.rottentomatoes.com, but less so than those on List A. The “very
pleasing” experience involved choosing a free DVD from List A. The
“mildly pleasing” experience involved choosing a free DVD from
List B. Participants voluntarily took part in the experiment by respond-
ing to the DVD offer via e-mail. All participants who were offered a
free DVD—even one from List B—voluntarily chose to receive one,
suggesting that the movies from List B were seen as positive for these
participants.
The participants were randomly divided into one of five groups
(see Table 1). Group A received a DVD from List A only. Group A1B
received a DVD from List A and a second DVD from List B. The par-
ticipants in Group A1B viewed List B via a second e-mail only after
they had chosen their first DVD from List A. There were three addi-
tional control groups to aid in interpreting any observed differences
between Groups A and A1B. The control groups were B, B1A, and
A1A. After making all of their DVD selections, participants were
asked to rate how pleased they were with the overall experience of
receiving the DVD offer on a scale that ranged from 1 (least pleased)
to 7 (most pleased). Participants were also asked to provide an expla-
nation for their rating. We had approval from the Institutional Review
Board (IRB) to carry out this experiment without prior informed con-
sent. The DVDs were delivered to the participants on a later date,
along with a letter that served to debrief them.
Results
The participants recruited from all three fundraisers
were combined in the statistical analysis, for a total of
104 participants. On the basis of their written comments to
the free DVD offer, 4 of the participants were eliminated.
They made comments that indicated that our DVD lists
were not viewed as intended in their cases (one in each
of four different groups). For instance, 1 participant in
Group A1B wrote that one of the movies from List B was
his all time favorite movie.A 2nd participant thought
the List A movies were all “establishment.” The analyses
are based on the 100 remaining participants.
The results are displayed in Table 1. Because our data
may not fully have met the assumptions for parametric
tests, we carried out a Kruskal–Wallis H test on the five
groups, followed by three Mann–Whitney U tests to ex-
amine three specific contrasts. The H test was significant
[χ
2
(4) 5 41.8, p , .001]. Using Mann–Whitney tests, we
found that the mean rank pleasure rating of Group A was
significantly greater than that of Group A1B (z 5 3.31,
p 5 .001). Group A was not significantly different from
Group B1A (z 5 1.34, p 5 .179). Group A1B was signif-
icantly different from Group B1A (z 5 2.08, p 5 .045).
EXPERIMENT 2
Method and Procedure
A smaller-scale experiment was conducted in order to attempt to
replicate the results of Experiment 1 in a different population and
context. Experiment 2 was conducted at a residential house that was
routinely visited by elementary school and middle school children
on Halloween night (see Santino, 1981, for a description of Hallow-
een customs). Participants consisted of “trick-or-treaters” who were
old enough (mean age 5 10.03, SD 5 1.79) to answer the survey
question “How happy are you with the candy that I gave you?” by
pointing to a “smiley face” on a smiley-face happiness scale. Seven
out of 28 (25%) of the participants were female.
On the night of Halloween, trick-or-treaters were given different
combinations of candy and asked to rate their level of happiness
in relation to the candy that they were given. The “very pleasing”
treat was a full-size Hershey’s chocolate bar. The “mildly pleas-
ing” treat was a piece of bubble gum. Permission was granted by
the IRB to conduct the experiment without the prior consent of the
participants.
Trick-or-treaters were assigned to one of four groups (A, A1B,
A1A, and B). Because the comparison of Groups A and A1B was
the critical assessment in the experiment, and because it was not pos-
sible to accurately predict how many participants would be recruited
that night, group assignment was biased toward the first two groups
in order to ensure that there would be enough participants for a statis-
tical comparison of these two groups. Specifically, participants had a
three-eighths probability of being assigned to Group A, a three-eights
probability of being assigned to Group A1B, and a one-eighth prob-
ability of being assigned to each of the other groups.
All participants who were offered the bubble gum voluntarily ac-
cepted it, which suggests that the experience of receiving the gum
was positive. After participants were presented with their candy, they
were shown a picture of seven smiley faces, each expressing a differ-
ent level of happiness. The first smiley face appeared “neutral” (the
mouth was drawn as a horizontal line), and the seventh smiley face
appeared “most pleased” (the mouth was drawn as a wide, open-
mouthed grin). The other smiley faces varied on a continuum be-
tween these two extremes. Participants were asked to indicate which
smiley face reflected how happy they were with the candy that was
given to them. Afterward, trick-or-treaters and their adult compan-
ions were given a letter that served to debrief them.
Results
The results are displayed in Table 2. Every child in
Groups A and A1A responded with the top rating of 7. We
carried out a Kruskal–Wallis H test on the four groups, fol-
lowed by one planned comparison. The H test was significant
[χ
2
(3) 5 18.04, p , .001]. Using a Mann– Whitney U test,
we found that the mean rank pleasure rating of Group A
was significantly greater than that of Group A1B (z 5
2.96, p 5 .003).
1
The results of Experiment 2 replicated
the key finding of Experiment 1, demonstrating that two
Table 1
Mean Ratings As a Function of Group in Experiment 1
Group N M Median SE
A 29 5.21 5.00 0.17
A1B 21 4.14 4.00 0.26
B1A 17 4.82 5.00 0.23
A1A 19 5.50 5.50 0.22
B 14 2.57 2.50 0.29
Table 2
Mean Ratings As a Function of Group in Experiment 2
Group N M Median SE
A 10 7.00 7.00 0.00
A1B 11 5.91 6.00 0.39
A1A 4 7.00 7.00 0.00
B 3 3.00 3.00 0.00
98 do, ru P e r t , a n d Wo l f o r d
positives are given a lower rating than a single positive if
the second item is less positive than the first.
DISCUSSION
The results of both Experiment 1 and Experiment 2 sup-
port the hypothesis that people report lower levels of overall
pleasure with the addition of mild pleasure at the end of an
experience. In this way, people rate less pleasure higher than
more pleasure. All of the participants in Group B rated the
experience as positively pleasurable, with a mean rating of
2.57 in Experiment 1 and a mean rating of 3.00 in Experi-
ment 2. We made it clear in both experiments that a rating of
“1” was considered neutral. In addition, participants volun-
tarily made a selection from List B movies in Experiment 1
and happily accepted the gum in Experiment 2, which im-
plies that these items were seen as positive. There were even
spontaneous expressions of pleasure from a few of the par-
ticipants in Group B in both Experiments 1 and 2. It is, of
course, possible that a particular participant would find the
List B movies or the “mildly pleasing” candy aversive, but
we doubt that was the case for many of the participants.
In Experiment 1, Group A1A had a higher average
rating than did Group A, although this difference is not
statistically significant. In Experiment 2, the two groups
were equal. The lack of significance could be due to a ceil-
ing effect—especially in Experiment 2—but this result
does eliminate the possibility that simply receiving two
items (e.g., two DVDs or two pieces of candy) is worse
than receiving a single item.
In Experiment 1, the mean rating of Group A was not
significantly different from that of Group B1A, and the
mean rating of Group B1A was significantly higher than
that of Group A1B. These results suggest that order is
crucial, and they confirm that the peak–end rule is appli-
cable to pleasurable experiences, particularly to pleasure
derived from material gains.
The peak–end rule presumably applies to episodes that
are viewed as one joint event. In Experiment 1, participants
were specifically asked to rate how pleased they were with
the “overall” DVD offer. In Experiment 2, participants
were asked to rate how pleased they were “with the candy
that I gave you.” This wording was intended to encourage
the participants in Experiment 1 to perceive the overall
experience of receiving two free DVDs as one cohesive
event, and to encourage those in Experiment 2 to perceive
the overall experience of receiving two pieces of candy as
one joint experience. The strongly significant difference
between Groups A1B and B in both experiments rules out
the possibility that the ratings were determined entirely by
the last item received. However, an implementation of the
peak–end rule in which the two items are combined in a
weighted average—with the latter item receiving a higher
weight—is consistent with our results.
The results of this study support the idea that the effects
found in retrospective evaluations of pain are applicable to
evaluations of pleasure. If you were planning to give mul-
tiple gifts for a future holiday, you might consider giving
only the best one—or at least making sure that you give
the best one last.
AUTHOR NOTE
We thank the Lincoln Filene Fund at Dartmouth College for supporting
this research. Address correspondence to G. Wolford, 6207 Moore Hall,
Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755 (e-mail: wolford@dartmouth
.edu).
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NOTE
1. Because there were so many tied scores, we also carried out a χ
2
test
of Group A versus Group A1B. We dichotomized the ratings into those
of 7 versus all of the others [χ
2
(1) 5 9.545, p 5 .002]. A two-sided
Fisher exact test yielded a p value of .004.
(Manuscript received August 22, 2006;
revision accepted for publication May 15, 2007.)
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This article reviews existing empirical research on the peak-and-end rule. This rule states that people's global evaluations of past affective episodes can be well predicted by the affect experienced during just two moments: the moment of peak affect intensity and the ending. One consequence of the peak-and-end rule is that the duration of affective episodes is largely neglected. Evidence supporting the peak-and-end rule is robust, but qualified. New directions for future work in this emerging area of study are outlined. In particular, the personal meanings associated with specific moments and with specific emotions should be assessed. It is hypothesised that moments rich with self-relevant information will dominate people's global evaluations of past affective episodes. The article concludes with a discussion of ways to measure and optimise objective happiness.
Article
Subjects were exposed to two aversive experiences: in the short trial, they immersed one hand in water at 14 °C for 60 s; in the long trial, they immersed the other hand at 14 °C for 60 s, then kept the hand in the water 30 s longer as the temperature of the water was gradually raised to 15 °C, still painful but distinctly less so for most subjects. Subjects were later given a choice of which trial to repeat. A significant majority chose to repeat the long trial, apparently preferring more pain over less. The results add to other evidence suggesting that duration plays a small role in retrospective evaluations of aversive experiences; such evaluations are often dominated by the discomfort at the worst and at the final moments of episodes.
Article
Documented with 2 experiments a phenomenon of duration neglect in people's global evaluations of past affective experiences. In Study 1, 32 Ss viewed aversive film clips and pleasant film clips that varied in duration and intensity. Ss provided real-time ratings of affect during each clip and global evaluations of each clip when it was over. In Study 2, 96 Ss viewed these same clips and later ranked them by their contribution to an overall experience of pleasantness (or unpleasantness). Experimental Ss ranked the films from memory; control Ss were informed of the ranking task in advance and encouraged to make evaluations on-line. Effects of film duration on retropsective evaluations were small, entirely explained by changes in real-time affects and further reduced when made from memory. Retrospective evaluations appear to be determined by a weighing average of "snapshots" of the actual affective experiences, as if duration did not matter.
Article
Two experiments documented a phenomenon of duration neglect in people's global evaluations of past affective experiences. In Study 1, 32 Ss viewed aversive film clips and pleasant film clips that varied in duration and intensity. Ss provided real-time ratings of affect during each clip and global evaluations of each clip when it was over. In Study 2, 96 Ss viewed these same clips and later ranked them by their contribution to an overall experience of pleasantness (or unpleasantness). Experimental Ss ranked the films from memory; control Ss were informed of the ranking task in advance and encouraged to make evaluations on-line. Effects of film duration on retrospective evaluations were small, entirely explained by changes in real-time affect and further reduced when made from memory. Retrospective evaluations appear to be determined by a weighted average of "snapshots" of the actual affective experience, as if duration did not matter.
Article
Patients' memories of painful medical procedures may influence their decisions about future treatments, yet memories are imperfect and susceptible to bias. We recorded in real-time the intensity of pain experienced by patients undergoing colonoscopy (n = 154) and lithotripsy (n = 133). We subsequently examined patients' retrospective evaluations of the total pain of the procedure, and related these evaluations to the real-time recording obtained during the experience. We found that individuals varied substantially in the total amount of pain they remembered. Patients' judgments of total pain were strongly correlated with the peak intensity of pain (P < 0.005) and with the intensity of pain recorded during the last 3 min of the procedure (P < 0.005). Despite substantial variation in the duration of the experience, lengthy procedures were not remembered as particularly aversive. We suggest that patients' memories of painful medical procedures largely reflect the intensity of pain at the worst part and at the final part of the experience.
Article
Retrospective evaluations of aversive episodes were studied in the context of a general model of "judgment by prototype" that has been applied in other situations. Unpleasant sounds of variable loudness and duration were the stimuli. In Experiment 1, continuous reports of annoyance closely tracked variations of noise intensity. Hypotheses about the determinants of retrospective evaluation were examined in Experiment 2. Experiment 3 confirmed a prediction of judgment by prototype: The effects of sound duration and intensity are additive in multitrial experiments. Experiment 4 confirmed a robust preference for aversive episodes that are "improved" by adding a period of reduced aversiveness.