One summer in graduate school, a couple friends talked me into doing the run portion of a triathlon with them.
I don’t remember much about the experience, other than wondering somewhere around the half-way point why I ever agreed to do such a thing and rueing the day I ever met them, but also, on a more positive note, that the last portion of the race was downhill, and there were a lot of folks at the end offering smiles and encouragement.
The first words I said to my friends at the finish line were “never again,” but oddly, later in the day, I agreed to do it again if they wanted.
Were my friends really just that persuasive? Was I high on endorphins?1 Or was there something else at play that might have made me more agreeable?
And what does this have to do with practicing anyway?
Our memory is not so reliable
“Remembered utility” is a term used to describe our evaluation of how pleasurable or painful a past experience was. And we tend to use this information to make decisions about what to do in the future. For instance, if we had a horrible experience on our first day of swimming lessons, we are probably going to be more inclined to avoid swimming lessons in the future.
The interesting thing, of course, is that our memory of such experiences is not 100% reliable and is vulnerable to a rather peculiar bias – sometimes called the “peak-end rule.”
The peak-end rule
The peak-end rule states that our evaluation of past experiences tend to be based on their most intense point (best or worst), and how they end. In a 1993 study, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and colleagues asked a group of people to stick their hands in uncomfortably cold water, but in two slightly different circumstances. In one condition they had to keep their hand submerged in 14°C (57.2°F) water for 60 seconds (which apparently, is not so fun). In another condition they were asked to stick their hand in 14°C (57.2°F) water for 60 seconds, plus an additional 30 seconds while the temperature was gradually raised to 15°C (59°F). As I understand it, 15°C still sucks, but is noticeably less painful than 14°C.
If our brains were totally rational, we’d choose the 60 seconds of pain rather than 60 seconds of pain + 30 more seconds of slightly reduced pain, right? But no! When given a choice of which trial to repeat, 69% of the participants chose to repeat the longer one – apparently perceiving that experience to be better overall, because of how the ending skewed their perspective.
The same phenomenon has been observed in other areas, from colonoscopies to waiting in line. So, a researcher at Washington University was curious to see if the peak-end rule might apply to studying challenging material (which for my kids, probably falls much nearer colonoscopies on the pain-pleasure continuum than waiting in line…).
Because if making the end of a study (or practice) session slightly less painful makes us more likely to put our noses back to the grindstone in the future, that would be pretty helpful to know.
44 undergraduate students were told that they were going to study and be tested on three lists of words. Meanwhile, the participants weren’t told that one of the lists was longer than the other, and that there was no third list (the reasons for which will become clearer in a moment).
Half of the participants studied and were tested on the short list first (30 extremely difficult Spanish-English translations), followed by the longer list (30 different, but similarly challenging Spanish-English translations plus an additional 15 moderately difficult words placed at the end). The other half studied/tested the long list first, and then the short list.
After participants studied and were tested on both tests, they were asked a series of questions designed to gauge their experience of the two tests. Such as, “For the third study list today, you can pick which type of list you would like to repeat. Would you rather study a list of new words that was more like List 1 or like List 2?” Or, “Which list was more difficult to learn?, “Which list do you think it took longer to learn?”, and “Which list was tougher for you to cope with?”.
Short list vs. long list
Participants performed better on the test for the short list, so in a perfectly rational world where test performance would predict one’s preferred study method, the short list ought to be the preferred list.
However, 73% of the participants preferred the longer list (this is the one which had as many challenging items to study as the short list, but ended with the additional 15 easier, but still challenging items). Most of the participants also rated the longer list as being less difficult (70%), and less tough to cope with (71%). Their sense of time was also distorted, with 70% of the participants thinking that the shorter list took them longer to learn.
In other words, a challenging study session that was longer, but ended with slightly easier material was preferable to a shorter study session with challenging material throughout.
Like eating our veggies before dessert, it seems that saving our easiest or funnest tasks for last may help us perceive our practice session as being less of a chore (and make it easier to get ourselves to practice again). It’s probably helpful, even in a rehearsal or performance, to end things on an up note (ha!) as well. And in a lesson, being sure to end things with an experience that feels encouraging, or easier, or fun, could help foster a more positive memory of the lesson – even if it was a very challenging one for the student.
And in case the peak-end rule relates to blog posts too, here is an article describing how watching cat videos might actually be a productivity booster, as well as one to get you started. And if you’re wondering what’s up with all the cats on the internet, here’s a fun video about the cat video phenomenon.
- Just kidding – the endorphins explanation for the “runner’s high” seems to be more myth than fact (another article here if you’re interested)