The World of Work Project

The Peak-End Rule: A Cognitive Bias

The Peak-End rule says that an individual’s assessment of an experience is affected by two key things. It is heavily influenced by the highest or lowest points of that experience, and how that experience ended. This knowledge can useful when designing customer or employee experiences.

Summary by The World of Work Project

The Peak End Rule

The peak end rule is a cognitive bias. It has been empirically shown that when individuals assess an experience, their assessments are predominantly based on the highest or lowest points of their experience, and how their experience ended.

The Peak-End Rule In Action

Diagram of experiences showing The Peak-End rule

When an individual takes part in Experience A they have an average experience of 5. They also have a peak and an end of 6.

In Experience B they have an average experience of 2, but a peak and end of 8.

Logic would suggest that the individual would rate experience A more highly an an overall experience than Experience B.

Evidence, though, suggests they will rate B more highly overall. This is due to the fact that its peak and end are both higher than any moments of A.  

How Has The Peak-End Rule Tested?

That water does look cold!

Some interesting experiments have been undertaken to prove The Peak-End rule.

For example, in some experiments individuals were asked to place their hand into cold water for a period of time. They were then asked to report on how unpleasant the experience was.

In these experiments, individuals with moderately high average temperatures, but lower trough and end temperatures, reported worse experiences than individuals with low average temperatures and warmer ending temperatures.

Learning More

The way we think as humans is fascinating. Cognitive biases clearly explain some of our “irrationality”. The peak-end rule is just one example of this.

Understanding our Dual Process way of thinking provides some further insight into it. This “irrationality” means that we’re all suggestible and susceptible to nudging and the powers of choice architecture and persuasion.

Communication is another tool often used to change people’s behaviors. Ideas like the rhetorical triangle and the five canons of rhetoric shed some light on how this works. For a more detailed look at communicating for persuasion, explore Monroe’s Motivated Sequence.

Increasingly, products are also design to be persuasive, as it were. They are designed to create habits and drive increased use. Examples of this include Fogg’s model and the Hook model of behavioral design.

You can listen to our podcast, below, on nudging to learn more about how our behaviors can be influenced:

The World of Work Project View

The Peak-End rule cognitive bias / heuristic is generally accepted as scientifically sound. It is interesting, particularly from a user or customer experience perspective within work.

Its basic point is that an individual’s assessment of an experience is based on either the highest or lowest points of an experience and how the experience ended. This means that when designing interventions or customer interactions within work, that it’s very important to manage the peaks and to ensure that you end on a high positive. If you do this effectively, then the individuals you are interacting with will probably have a higher level of satisfaction with the experience than if you don’t.

Of course, this is all a bit complicated. By designing, for example, learning and development programs to finish on a high point (perhaps by giving everyone a surprise gift), it’s possible to increase attendee experience, but this increased perception of experience might not have anything to do with the actual usefulness or benefit of the interaction. The same goes for customer experiences.

In other words, consideration of The Peak-End rule in intervention design may be helpful, but it may also just be a way to try to “game” the perceptions of participants in your intervention. In our view, it’s always better to design a great product than to try and game someone’s perception of it.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

There, as ever, is a lot of original work behind this post. If you’d like to read more, it might be worth starting with the article: “When more pain is preferred to less: Adding a better end“, from Psychological Science.

Kahneman, D., Fredrickson, B. L., Schreiber, C. A., & Redelmeier, D. A. (1993). When more pain is preferred to less: Adding a better end. Psychological Science, 4, 401-405.

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