“It’s weird,” she says, “I know it ended so badly. The breakup is basically seared in my mind at this point. But I can’t stop thinking about the good times either.” She recounts a series of experiences she had with her ex to me. Intensely positive memories.
“I don’t understand it,” she says. “I remember it all so clearly. Even though it ended badly, the good times are still seared right in there, too. I’m such a freak.”
“Nah,” I say, “it’d be freakier if that weren’t the case.”
“Oh?” she says.
“Yeah,” I reply. “Have you ever heard of the peak-end rule?”
What’s the Peak-End Rule?
The peak-end rule is a common cognitive bias that all humans share in which we tend to remember two things about an experience the best: the end of it and its peak. The peak is basically the most intense part — this can be either positive or negative.
In my friend’s case, these were peak positive experiences — which was profoundly confusing to her and was resulting in some unwanted ambivalence. She wanted to completely despise her ex but kept being swept back to memories that contradicted her sourness about the end.
In other situations, I’ve had friends whose peak-end was completely negative. And in some situations, I’ve seen peak-ends that were overwhelmingly positive (especially when situational factors parted people or someone was widowed, etc.).
What’s important to keep in mind is that it’s all possible. It’s all valid. And it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. Our memories tend to be selective in exactly this way — and it can cause a lot of confusion.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.