A recent study has found that people tend to pay more attention to an ending, and it turns out that it’s having an impact on our ability to make good decisions.
Have you ever had something ruined by a bad ending? Maybe you thought you’d found a new favourite Netflix series, only to have it crash and burn in the final episode. Or maybe you’ve found yourself thinking positively about an experience, even if you only really enjoyed it right at the very end.
Well, as it turns out, we’re all prone to placing this sort of emphasis on an ending, and there’s a scientific reason for it, too.
According to new research published in The Journal of Neuroscience, “humans tend to assign disproportionate weight to the later part of an experience”. This has to do with the fact that we process the ending of an event differently to the event as a whole.
While an experience, whether it be a film we watched or a day out with friends, will be encoded accurately in a part of the brain called the amygdala, whether we view it as good or bad will be determined by “anterior insula activity” that responds primarily to what you have most recently experienced.
While this may seem harmless, this sort of cognitive bias can have an effect on our ability to make good decisions. As the study explains, “our ability to evaluate an experience retrospectively is important”, because it can “be used as a guide in deciding whether the experience merits repeating, or whether instead it should be avoided”.
To illustrate this point, the study asked 28 volunteers to estimate the value of two streams of virtual coins of all different sizes, in which participants were told that the bigger coins were of greater value than the smaller coins. When they had seen the streams, generally speaking, participants said they would choose to take the stream that ended with bigger (and therefore higher value) coins, even if the stream as a whole was actually worth less.
What this goes to show is that our decision-making ability is clouded by the emphasis we place on an ending. The study’s participants, for example, made their decisions based on the positive information they received at the end of the experiment, even though it would have made them worse off.
This is akin to you choosing to take a smaller amount of money just because you saw a £10 note being added to it at the end, rather than a much larger amount that was rounded off with a £5 note.
This psychological phenomenon could help to explain why people often give friends or partners who treat them poorly another chance if they repeatedly apologise for their bad behaviour, or why we might decide never to go back to a great restaurant because of a disappointing final course.
It’s something that we all do. But, by paying attention to it and making the conscious decision to evaluate our experiences as a whole, rather than our final impressions, we can avoid falling victim to this way of thinking.