Kahneman relates to the peak-end rule with his own experience: seeing La Traviata. The opera ends with the heroine dying, waiting for her beloved. Her lover is able to get to her in time, and after ten minutes of glorious duets, the heroine dies. Kahneman explains that had the heroine’s life been a year shorter, it would not have been as important as if the last ten minutes of her life had been lost.
The subjectivity of our own lives and experiences comes into play once again. We value the resolution of the heroine’s story more than we value an objectively longer life she might have lived.
In a description of a fictitious woman named Jen, Kahneman says she was never married and had no children. In one version of her story, she was extremely happy through her life (different people read that she was 30 or 60) and was killed painlessly and instantly in a car crash. Another version of her story added 5 extra years to her life (so she died at 35 or 65). The extra years were pleasant but less so than before. Participants were asked about the total happiness she experienced. The study found no difference between responses when she was 30 or 60. But adding 5 slightly happy years to a very happy life caused a substantial drop in evaluations of her total happiness.
This example also echoes the peak-end rule from the prior chapter: how this woman’s life ended (with either very happy years or with slightly less happy years) is more important in our subjective evaluations than the many happy years she experienced over the course of her life.
Another study found that people choose by memory, not by experience, when they decide whether or not to repeat an experience. Taking vacations as an example, Kahneman asks a thought experiment: if you knew that you would have no pictures, videos, or memories of a vacation, how would this affect your vacation plans? Many people choose to maximize pleasure by returning to a place where they have been happy; others say that they would not bother to go at all.
This example demonstrates how much value we place on good stories, particularly in our own lives and experiences. The difference in vacations that people would take highlights how much our actions are motivated by the future memories we will have of an experience.
In another thought experiment, Kahneman writes that you will undergo a painful surgery for which you will be awake and will scream and beg for it to stop. However, you are promised an amnesia-inducing drug that will wipe out memories of the episode. Kahneman’s informal observations are that most people are relatively indifferent to their own pain and treat themselves like a suffering stranger, and some do not care at all.
The same idea is true of painful experiences: we care little about how much pain we might actually endure if our future subjective memory of that experience contains less pain.