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The End of the Story Is Not the Story

Getting past unhappy endings

Published in Psychology Today on June 20th, 2018.

By Robert N. Kraft Ph.D.

“Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self feels events in the present, whereas the remembering self looks back and experiences the memories of these events.  Notably, we experience events consistently and fully throughout, but we remember events primarily in terms of how they end.

Suppose we undergo a dental procedure that proceeds uneventfully – until the end, when it finishes with 5 minutes of moderate pain. We then go to the dentist a second time and undergo a similar procedure, but with 10 minutes of moderate pain in the middle and no pain at the end. Even though we experienced half as much pain with the first procedure, we will remember it as more painful because the pain came at the end.

Or we go to a movie that’s enjoyable and engaging throughout, except for a disappointing ending. We may later remember that movie as largely unenjoyable, even though most of our experience was favorable. In contrast, a mediocre movie with an uplifting, joyous ending may be remembered as a good time.

The same effect happens with summer vacations, college courses, and other extended events. Shakespeare was right when he said “all’s well that ends well.”  But by implication, an unwell ending means that all is not well.

Why do endings disproportionately influence our memory for an entire experience?”

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