Peak-End Theory: The Brain’s Highlight Reel

Peak-End Theory

Just as our brain can sometimes lie to us in the moment, it can also distort the way we remember events in the past. Often we’ll perceive a memory in vastly different ways than we experienced it in the moment—remembering more of the good or more of the bad than was actually happening in real time. This concept can be explained by Peak-End Theory.

Peak-End Theory was coined by Nobel Prize-winning Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who discovered that we only remember certain parts of an event: the peak and the end.

Positive Psychology explains it well:

The peak-end theory is a psychological rule in which an experience is evaluated and remembered based on the peak (most intense) point of the experience and/or the ending of the experience. It seems our recollection of events is impacted greatly by this interpretation of events experienced rather than the experience as a whole.

In other words, the memories we recall are heavily influenced by how we felt in the most intense moments (joy, excitement, fear, disappointment), and by the way the events eventually conclude. (Positively or negatively.) Everything else gets condensed in our memories, compressed for simplicity’s sake. To illustrate this, think about a good date turned sour by an argument at the end: we remember the fight above the rest. Or the stunning goal in the middle of an otherwise uneventful game: we remember the goal, not how the game began. Or the baby in your arms at the end of childbirth: we remember the sweet meet-cute, not the 18 hour labor. (Though perhaps you also recall the pushing—the “peak” of that event—as well.)

In fact, our brains almost never truly recall (or influence our positive/negative feelings of the memory) the duration of the event—an amazing two-week vacation is recalled with the same strength of an amazing 3-day trip. This is called “duration neglect,” as our brains simply filter this extraneous information out.

This theory has roots in our dinosaur-fearing caveman friend: he doesn’t need to know how long he ran from the dinosaur, he just needs to remember the part where it got really, really close, and the part where he eventually got away and survived another day in The Land Before Time. There’s simply no way our brains could possibly store every piece of information and data fed to it day in and day out, so it does it’s best to filter and categorize.