How a Satisfying Finish Can Skew Your Thinking

woman deciding which choiceWhat is it you like about a restaurant? Its great appetizers? Its juicy steaks? Or is it maybe whatever you happened to eat last before you left? It’s easy to think that the way you feel about the places you eat, the movies you watch or the stores you frequent is based on their overall quality. But new research published this week throws that idea into question. The data suggests that your brain favors some experiences more than others and that timing is key when it comes to how you feel about something.

What sorts of factors determine how we feel about experiences?

Remembering is an important aspect of the way that we navigate the world. When you go to a store, grab a bite to eat or even play a game with a friend, you’re probably left with a positive or negative memory of that experience. That memory helps to guide you when you’re making decisions about what to do in the future. Going to a restaurant where the burgers were horrible will keep you from considering that restaurant again when deciding where to eat.

When conjuring up these memories, it can seem like they’re an average of the experience. We think of them as a general judgement based on all the factors that went into deciding whether you liked the time you spent doing something or not. If you like one movie over another, for example, you’re probably going to assume that you like one more because, on balance, the whole movie was better, rather than just a few specific parts.

What did the researchers want to study?

The research team wondered if the timing of the positive feelings we have about something matter in the memory we hold on to, even when the experiences are the same on average. For example, if you went to a restaurant with a great main course and horrible dessert, how would it compare to a restaurant with a horrible main course but a fantastic dessert?

To figure this out, the team put a group of people through a game. In the first round, participants were shown two series of digital coins with value based on size. Each series had coins of different value placed in different orders. The participants were asked to freely choose coin series from the pairs they were shown. In the second round, the participants had the same task, but were asked specifically which set of coins they preferred out of each pair.

What did the researchers find?

The team found that where valuable coins were placed in a series mattered in whether a person preferred them. Those found at the beginning or at the end seemed to weigh more heavily on how much a person liked a group of coins than those found in the middle. As a result, when a person thought the coin at the end was high in value, they tended to like that series more. If the last coin was low in value, they tended to like it less.

The trick was that both series of coins had the same value on average. What differed was the order. This showed the researchers that the value of the last coin was changing the way a person felt about the whole set. A person might think a set contained too many small coins, but if it finished with a big bonus they would rate it more highly than a series with lots of big coins that ended with a few pennies. The researchers think this way of ranking acts as a sort of mental shortcut so that the brain can make snap decisions without having to swim through too much memory data.

How does this affect me?

This research shows that having a happy ending can save a negative experience and that a disappointing ending can drop how you feel about something even if the experience was positive up until then. The key here is not to get fooled by this mental shortcut. Before you recommend a hotel to a friend or submit that next restaurant review, try and think about the entirety of the experience, rather than just the afterglow.