How Remembering Bias Can Help You Improve Your Life

Jake Wilder
Dec 23, 2020 · 7 min read

All’s Well That Ends Well

You’ve volunteered for an experiment and have two choices:

Option 1: Put your hand in 14° Celsius water (painfully cold, but not intolerable) for 60 seconds.

Option 2: Put your hand in 14° Celsius water for that same 60 seconds. Then immerse it in slightly warmer water (roughly 15 or 16° Celsius — still painfully cold, but a little warmer) for another 30 seconds.

I’m guessing you said Option 1. It’s a choice between 60 seconds of pain and 90 seconds of pain. Not much of a choice.

Yet when people experience both — they remember the second option more favorably. And choose to repeat that one.

Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues ran this experiment, putting groups through both of the above trials. When offered the choice of which one they’d like to repeat as their third trial, the majority chose Option 2. As Kahneman wrote, “Fully 80% of the participants who reported that their pain diminished during the final phase of the longer episode opted to repeat it, thereby declaring themselves willing to suffer 30 seconds of needless pain in the anticipated third trial.”

Participants knew that the second trial was longer. But they remembered it as a better experience. Their remembering self was at clear odds with their experiencing self.

While the experiencing self considers all events equally, two aspects overly bias the remembering self. We clearly remember the peak high (or low). And we clearly remember how an experience ends. These two aspects — the peak and end points — have a disproportionate impact on our memory. And hence, our future decisions. As Kahneman described in Thinking, Fast and Slow,

“The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions.”

If you know this — and you do, because I just told you — then it’s worth making sure we’re using it to our advantage.

When chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin was skiing with downhill legend Billy Kidd, Kidd asked him what he thought were the three most important turns of the run. As Josh explained Billy’s answer,

“Most people will say ‘the middle because it’s the hardest’ or ‘the beginning because of momentum,’ but he describes the three most important turns of a ski run as the last three before you get on the lift. It’s a very subtle point. For those of you who are skiers, that’s when the slope is leveled off, there’s less challenge. Most people are very sloppy then…they have bad form. The problem is that on the lift ride up, unconsciously, you’re internalizing bad body mechanics.”

On the ride up, you’ll internalize quality based on your memories. And as Kahneman showed, those memories skew towards both the peak experience and the ending. By ending with precision, you’ll remember precision. And if you remember precision, you’ll internalize precision.

Ernest Hemingway operated on a similar principle. He would routinely end his day’s writing session in mid-flow and mid-sentence. Instead of writing until he was tired and frustrated, he preferred to walk away while he was operating at his peak.

Not only did this give him an ideal spot to begin the next day’s work, ending well gave him positive memories of writing. He internalized quality. And he remembered writing as a positive, making it easier to begin work again the next day.

How are you ending each day? If you end work with high quality, you’re able to internalize that quality overnight. You’ll also remember the day better, helping you look forward to getting started again the next day.

The opposite is true as well. End your work tired and frustrated and you’ll come to associate it with difficulty and failure. You won’t want to return to it. There are few better opportunities for procrastination to take hold.

This principle applies to anything. End well and you remember that activity well. End poorly and you remember it poorly.

And just as these endings disproportionately influence our own memories, other people use them to the same bias. It’s on us to make sure we’re giving them positive memories to fill these spots.

Like George Costanza’s experiment with ending on a high note, it pays to leave people wanting more. Although as a general rule, modeling your behavior after George Costanza is rarely a good idea.

Just as we remember the peaks and endings of our own behavior, others will as well. If you work at a company for ten years, most people will remember the key successes (or setbacks) and how you acted in the final six months. So while I’m always supportive of candid feedback, it pays to be careful and not burn any bridges on your way out. It’s too easy for a few misconstrued actions to overshadow years of positive behavior.

Unfortunately, we often lose sight of this on a day-to-day basis. We focus on moving on to the next challenge, getting that next win, that we shortchange the ending to our existing commitment.

Companies tend to struggle with this same problem. They prioritize their marketing and engagement to get people to the point of sale. Then the level of service drops way down.

Joe Girard, named the world’s “greatest car salesman” by the Guinness Book of World Records, took the opposite approach. He embodied the idea that the real sale begins after the sale. Each month, he would send out greeting cards to every one of his more than 13,000 former customers. Twelve times a year, his former customers would get a card letting them know that he liked and remembered them. And for twelve years straight, he won the title as the “number one car salesman,” averaging more than five cars and trucks sold every day.

Derek Sivers employed a similar approach while running CD Baby. Instead of the canned thank you note that most companies sent, he wrote an over-the-top email to make people smile when they received their CD. His message, which includes the sentence, “Our packaging specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy,” went viral online. It resulted in thousands of new customers as people happily bragged to their friends about it.

Both Joe and Derek recognized that if you can make someone smile after the sale, when everyone else is pushing canned surveys, those positive memories will pay off in the long-term.

“If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to be a horrible warning,” said Catherine Aird. And there are few better or more horrible warnings than within our current political drama.

As the first round of vaccines roll out to people throughout the country, the president had a perfect opportunity to end his term on a positive note. After nine months of national misery, he could have emphasized the private-sector innovation from Pfizer and Moderna, underscoring long-held conservative values. He could have offered a message of hope and encouragement by visiting vaccine distribution sites and clinics, helping promote the economic recovery.

Instead, he raged on Twitter. He menaced Republicans who had the gall to abide by the country’s democratic laws. And he continued to promote voter fraud conspiracy theories without any semblance of evidence. As Mitch Romney put it, “The president could have made that the hallmark of his last days in office. Instead, he’s seen as promoting conspiracy theories and evidence-free accusations of fraud, which lead to a color of a sore loser.”

Trump’s choice isn’t surprising. He’s spent the past four years shirking major leadership challenges while using his position to wage personal vendettas. The peak memories that will define his presidency are the mismanagement of the pandemic and sowing further division around racial injustice. In choosing to end his term on this same note, he cements his legacy as someone who refuses to acknowledge reality when it doesn’t conform to his limited views.

We remember peaks and we remember endings. Whether you’re trying to internalize quality and more easily build on that momentum tomorrow or leave people with a lasting, positive impression, the quality of the finish will have a significant impact. Everything you do, make sure that the last effort is a good one.

This isn’t always efficient in the moment. When you’re doing well, you want to keep going. When you’ve gotten a win or a sale, you want to move on to the next challenge. Taking the time to finish well can seem like a poor use of your time and energy.

But remember that you’re playing a long game. Stopping a workout early after a personal best will build your confidence for tomorrow. Breaking from work while you’re mid-flow will energize you for the next session. And taking the time to end well and deliver a positive impression on someone will almost always pay off down the road.

It may not be the most efficient action today. But you’re not worried about just today. Play the long game. End well.

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