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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

It's all about the peak and the ending

How do we attach value to an experience after we've experienced it? It's a fairly basic question, of importance to economists, marketers, product manufacturers, service providers, policy makers, and of course, arts managers. After all, if an experience is remembered as highly pleasurable or profound, an individual is much more likely to want to experience it again (and if it's remembered as particularly painful, it will be avoided).

Thankfully, a small cluster of psychologists, economists, and others are starting to dig into the question. Chief among them is Nobel-prize winning psychiatrist Daniel Kahneman, who has done specific experiments to determine how individuals attribute pleasure or pain to a lived experience. Kahneman works both sides of the question -- both pleasure and pain -- since many are as interested in reducing remembered unpleasantness (the health care industry, for example) as they are in increasing remembered pleasure. But his initial findings and conclusions offer a fascinating glimpse at the human mind (if you want to really dig in, you can read one of Kahneman's scholarly papers on the subject).

One particularly interesting conclusion drawn from his work is the Peak/End Rule, defined by wikipedia as follows:

According to the peak-end rule, we judge our past experiences almost entirely on how they were at their peak (pleasant or unpleasant) and how they ended. Virtually all other information appears to be discarded, including net pleasantness or unpleasantness and how long the experience lasted.

So, if you had a long experience with a constant level of pain, and another shorter experience with an intense spike in the middle and a sudden drop at the end, you'd remember the second experience as more painful than the first. It's an odd sort of mental shorthand our brain seems to use to capture the gist of the experience, and to inform our future choices.

How might this apply to the arts experience or arts administration? Let me count the ways...

First off, this fact of perception seems to be already in the bones of the most well-regarded artists. For example, I once heard a jazz pianist tell a group of students how to craft a solo improvisation. The cheat-sheet? Build to a strong middle, and make a solid ending...the audience won't remember anything else. I've also seen many orchestral conductors add an especially dramatic flourish to their final cut-off, leading the crowd to go wild, regardless of what came before.

In the realm of arts management, the idea that audiences will attach a more powerfully positive value to their experience based on only two variables (its peak, and its end) would lead smart folks to expend a bit more energy on those particular variables. Even if you can't change the content or flow of the performance or exhibit, you can certainly manage the entrance and exit from the event -- adding a flourish where one is required, remaining out of the way when one is not.

Health care providers are already using this information to change the way they do particularly unpleasant procedures (don't ask which)...even extending the length of the procedure if it leads to a lower peak intensity and a more gradual ending. As a result, patients remember a less painful experience, and are more likely to continue treatment.

If you're not ready to be a radical change agent, just begin by watching an audience experience an arts event -- guessing where the peak intensity lies, as well as the nature of the ending -- and then ask a few participants how they liked it. A little social anthropology now and then can keep you on your game.

NOTE: For more on Kahneman's work as it relates to economics, check out this story in The New Yorker. For more about Kahneman, see his resume at Princeton (boring in the middle, tedious at the end...he must not read his own stuff).

posted on Tuesday, January 25, 2005 | permalink