How to remember Melbourne lockdown? Behavioural Science says try the ‘Peak End Rule’; Daniel Andrews wins
By Dan Monheit, originally published on Mi3 19.11.20
After eight months of coronavirus lockdown, the not normal, the new normal, now Melbournites are relishing in the next normal by being, well, normal. Life is back on — cafes, restaurants, bars, kid’s birthday parties, family and friends’ meetups, sports, shopping — and while it’s only just finished, it’s interesting to consider how we’ll look back on the very strange year we’ve all just lived through.
Our rational, pragmatic selves would have us believe that our memories are an accurate representation (or at least a rough approximation) of the experiences they’re drawn from. Interestingly, behavioural science offers some insights into just how biased we are when it comes to re-contextualizing our past.
Danny Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning Israeli psychologist, has spent his career examining the differences between our ‘experiencing self’ and our ‘remembering self’, as well as the interrelation between the two. Whilst our experiencing self is all about how we feel in the moment, it’s our remembering self that carries the story for the days, months and years thereafter.
Through decades of research, Kahneman has proven that not all parts of an experience are created equal when it comes to shaping memories. In fact, Kahneman’s aptly named ‘Peak End Rule’, states that people’s memories are formed largely based on how they felt at the most intense part of an experience (the ‘peak’, which could be positive or negative) and how they felt at the end, rather than the total sum or average of how they felt throughout it.
The Peak End Rule is as true for how we remember short holidays and two-day conferences as it is for how we remember six years of high school and long stretches of our working lives. The highs count. The lows count. The endings count. Everything else is as good as forgotten.
When I look back at the last eight months of lockdown, it’s hard to hone in on any specific, emotionally intense peaks. For me, and the millions of others lucky enough to not have been hugely or directly impacted healthwise or vocationally, the period was mainly just a long stretch filled with different kinds of boredom. When it comes to memories, however, ‘long stretches’ and ‘boredom’ don’t count.
So, what does this leave us with?
Without any truly horrendous negative peaks, such as our hospitals being overloaded, or large scale, permanent unemployment, the peaks have become those little blissful moments that almost caught us all off guard; the smell of fresh-baked sourdough in the house, the end of a crafting project, the joy of a brand new puppy or in my case, the slow time with my wife and two young kids. As a dad, I’ve always made an effort to be present, even though my presence was always ‘between things’ — work calls, late night emails, drop offs, meetings. For the last eight months, there’s been far less things to squeeze between. We’ve just been home. Together.
Endings are the other crucial factor in the crafting of our memories. How else do you explain the importance of death bed reconciliations, year 12 muck up day or the lolly bags that no kids party is complete without?
Kahneman tells a story about a gentleman listening to a beautiful piece of classical music. Right at the end of the record, there’s a wretched scratch, effectively ruining the experience. But did it? The first 47 minutes of listening to the music was still magnificent. The scratch at the end just ruined the memory.
With the end of the lockdown and the sense of pride Victorians feel in achieving something that no other cities have, the mood is indeed celebratory. Not surprisingly, everyone’s planning to go out to party and drink six months’ worth of beer in the next two weeks for a start. Restaurant waiting lists are full. It’s impossible to get a haircut. The streets are alive.