Want to Create a Better Experience? Think about Dessert

In “Curious?,” Todd Kashdan writes about the “peak end” experience. Memory is a reconstruction not a recall. This means that the way we remember experiences is different than the objective event itself. In this case, Kashdan explores the fact that an experience that ends well will be remembered more positively.

Kashdan offers up the unappetizing and unappealing example of research conducted on people having a colonoscopy. Apparently, this procedure can be painful and uncomfortable. Two people have the same procedure. However, when the procedure is over, the first person has the tube removed immediately; the pain is over. The second person has the tube left in for an additional five minutes; the pain is over, but the tube still feels uncomfortable. Who reports having a better experience?

Against all logic, the person who had the tube left in an additional five minutes rated the procedure higher than the person who was done immediately. In a second experiment, the scientists performed the colonoscopy for different lengths of time from four to 69 minutes and found that time had no effect on the reporting of experience. Because the, um, end of the procedure for those who had the tube left in felt less painful, the entire memory of the colonoscopy was colored as better.

Kashdan uses this research because of its scientific validity. More than one experiment reproduced the same result. However, for those who want a more tasteful representation of the “peak end” experience, you might consider the last time you had a great meal. Did it end with an amazing dessert? If so, you might wonder if the rest of the meal was as good as you think it was.

Kashdan recommends using this knowledge to improve experiences you don’t like, and he offers several examples of people doing something at the end of an activity to help make them feel better about the activity. For example, a person ends a gym session with a soak in the hot tub.

In my own life, I used to love going to the dentist when I was a kid. Our dentist had video games in the waiting room and never rushed me when I was on the hunt for a high score. More importantly, at the end of the visit, I would get to choose a toy from the toy box to take home with me. As a child who didn’t have enough toys because of our financial position, the dentist was able to end an experience that most people don’t enjoy, in such a way that I was able to remember the visits as great. For other businesses, it’s important to figure out how to end the transaction in a positive way, especially if someone has a bad experience.

Get my book and read more about “My Life in the Projects: a kid’s-eye view of HUD housing in the 1980s.”