The Peak-End Rule And What it Teaches Us About How We Remember Past Events

by | Jan 29, 2021


Why We Like Baseball Even Though It’s Boring

Years ago at a conference I had the pleasure of hearing Harvard psychologist and author Daniel Gilbert speak. He told a story that went something like this:

Imagine you go to a baseball game. It’s hot out and the game is scoreless and uneventful for nine innings. A total snoozer. You are bored and restless. Multiple times you consider leaving.

The game goes to extra innings. In the top of the 10th the visiting team scores two runs. Then in the bottom of the tenth, with two players on base, your team’s slugger hits a walk-off home run delivering a win. The crowd goes wild. Fireworks are set off. Very exciting!

When you return home your spouse asks “how was the game?” What do you say? Most people will respond: “it was fantastic – so exciting – we won in the 10th inning on a home run.”

Not only will the game seem exciting shortly after the game, but years later you will likely remember that boring game as being exciting while other baseball games will fade out of memory.

We Only Remember Peaks and Ends

This phenomenon is called the “Peak-End Rule” and occurs because “the most emotionally intense points of an experience and the end of that experience are heavily weighted in how we remember an event.” Source.

The Peak-End Rule means that our memory of the past is not accurate. We don’t remember things as they happened, but rather our memories are a series of snapshots of peaks and ends which our minds average out to give us an impression of an experience. It means that the emotions we feel during an experience shape how we remember it. Note that a “peak” doesn’t just refer to a good experience, but rather to all intense moments whether positive or negative.

The Two Selves and Stories

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains the evolutionary reasons for the Peak-End Rule as follows:

Memory was not designed to measure ongoing happiness, or total suffering. For survival, you really don’t need to put a lot of weight on duration of experiences. It is how bad they are and whether they end well, that is really the information you need as an organism.”

Thus, it’s like we have two selves: an experiencing self and a narrating self. Our experiencing self is who we are in the present moment receiving and experiencing all the stimuli related to our existence. Our narrating self filters our experiences and weaves them in to stories which are then stored in memory.  As noted in a prior IFOD, our experiences that we don’t tell as stories, whether to ourselves or others, fade away. We tend to remember only those experiences that we have storified. According to Roger Shank, in the long-term, what we remember is not the actual experience, but the gist of the story we’ve told: “memory tends to lose the original [experience] and keep the copy. The original events recede, and the new story takes its place.”


A fascinating aspect of the Peak-End rule is that the duration of an experience has little effect on our memory of it. As I write this I am remembering a full marathon and Thanksgiving 5k. I remember various things about both experiences, but the that fact that one took 4 hours and the other took less than 30 minutes isn’t the main part of each memory.

Examples of the Peak-End Rule From Research

Here are some examples from an article:

Positive endings can detract from an overall negative experience.

  • A classic example is childbirth. Memories of childbirth are strongly influenced by the peak and the ending rather than the duration of the labor. The positive memory of a baby being born can outweigh the impact of the length of the pain endured during the process.
  • For example, if you attend a concert with poor sound quality or performance, yet the concert ends with your favorite song, your memory of the experience overall will be more positive.
  • If you have a terrible meal at a restaurant, yet end with a delicious dessert, your memory of the meal is apt to be more favorable.
  • A sports season that was challenging or stressful ends in a championship win. Chances are, the team will have more positive memories based on this single, emotionally intense experience of winning a big game.
  • Funerals have been described as a manifestation of the peak-end rule. Even with a lifetime of experiences about someone, we end with hearing positive things about their lives, likely affecting our overall memories of them.
  • Duration neglect can be demonstrated in how we form memories of vacations. Extending vacations appears to not have a positive impact on the memories formed from the experience. A 2-week vacation will produce similar positive memories as a 1-week vacation since there are not diverse memories being formed. So, longer vacations are not necessarily remembered more fondly than shorter trips.

Negative endings can also detract from the overall impression of an experience, even if it was essentially positive or pleasurable.

  • A bad flight experience on the way home from a vacation can take away from the overall trip, even if the vacation was essentially positive.
  • You may play a great round of golf, yet things fall apart on the 18th hole. You are likely to be left with a negative feeling of the round, even though the first 17 holes went well.
  • If you experience a positive date night with your spouse, yet end with a two-minute disagreement, the argument will taint your memory of the whole evening.
  • A breakup of a relationship is also a common example, as we may vividly recall a heartbreaking or painful breakup.
  • Ending a class that you mostly enjoyed, yet ended up with a failing grade will tarnish your overall experience of the class.

Peak experiences that are not endings also influence our recollection of events.

  • For example, close games with intense moments such as scoring a big goal or making a mistake during the game will impact the memory formed.
  • Peak experiences involve emotional intensity. An example could be someone who essentially is happy in their job yet has a very negative experience with their boss. If they have experienced fear or anxiety due to a boss ridiculing, yelling, or humiliating, chances are it will impact their recollection of the job overall.
  • Situations, when we are faced with extreme fear, will color our memories significantly as well. If we have a close call or get in a car accident, it will impact how we remember a road trip regardless of what else occurred.


I don’t remember much about the conference I attended where Daniel Gilbert spoke and told the baseball story. I can’t recall where it was, what time of year it occurred, whether my wife came with me, or any of the other speakers. Yet, Gilbert’s talk stood out due to a few compelling stories he told. The takeaway of that is that we remember stories – whether it’s ones told to us or those we weave from the peaks and ends of our experiences.

The Peak-End Rule has many other implications. Here are some of them:

First, recognize that our memory of past events is nowhere near an accurate representation. Our memories are incomplete averages of peaks and ends — not a catalogue of what actually happened. Thus, we should be less certain about what occurred in the past.

Second, our memories are shaped by our emotions. Intense positive or negative emotions colors what we remember. This is important to keep in mind as we think back and consider experiences. A mostly good experience can be remembered as bad if there is a single intense negative experience and the inverse is also true.

Third, realize that others may have impressions of you that are not based on their totality of experiences with you but rather the emotions you instill in them during just a fraction of your interactions. In order to be memorable you need to create peaks and it would be best if they were positive!


  1. Awesome read… true.

  2. Loved the IFOD. Lucky for you three boys each of you created enough positive peak, and end point experiences that my memories of you are almost all positive. Of course I do remember being wakened at 1:30 A.M. and told that I needed to go driving around to see if you were in a ditch or something (remember, this was before cell phones)!


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