The World of Work Project

The Peak-End Rule

The Peak End rule says that an individual’s assessment of an experience 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 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.

Peak end theory in action

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

When the same individual takes part 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 that there is a good chance that they rate B more highly overall due to the fact that its peak and end are both higher than any moments of A.  

How has this been tested?

That water does look cold!

Some interesting experiments have been undertaken to prove this.

For example, in some experiments individuals were asked to place their hand into cold water for a period of time, then 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.

The World of Work Project View

This cognitive bias / heuristic is generally accepted as scientifically sound and 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 peak end theory 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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