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Using Behavioural Science: The Peak-End Rule

Using Behavioural Science: The Peak-End Rule

Written by

Abbie Dawson


August 17, 2023



Let's look at the psychological heuristic and how it can be used in retail and hospitality.

One of our favourite behavioural science principles is the Peak End Rule. 

It’s one of the most applicable to the retail and hospitality industries - so let’s look a bit deeper into it.

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of our new book, Atmospheres That Sell - Using Behavioural Science To Create Branded Atmospheres in Retail & Hospitality. 

The peak-end rule tells us that people are most likely to evaluate an experience by the sum of the most stand-out moments (the peaks) and its conclusion (the end). The truth is that it’s too cognitively taxing to consider all factors of an experience, and so the efficiency of our brains instead decides to just zoom in on a few factors and then maximise those out to be the full experience. ‍This psychological heuristic would explain why we can be ‘irrational’ in our recollection and memory of events.

The research of Barbara Fredrickson and Daniel Kahneman provided a body of evidence for the peak-end rule. For example, in one experiment participants were subjected to two similar unpleasant experiences:

  1. They put their hand in 14°C water for 60 seconds (that’s really cold).
  2. After this, they were asked to put their other hand in 14°C water for 60 seconds, but this time to keep their hand underwater for an extra 30 seconds, while the temperature was raised slightly to 15°C (still pretty cold).

What was interesting about this study was the next bit. The participants were asked to repeat one of the experiences. The seemingly obvious choice is to choose the first experience as while it was unpleasantly cold, it was for less time than the second experience. Curiously, participants were more willing to re-do the second experience, even though they were exposed to uncomfortably cold temperatures for altogether longer. In fact, 80% of the participants chose to re-do the second experience. The argument was made that while the second experience was longer in duration, there was a sort of ‘pleasure’ moment in warming the hand a little, and this part (just one-third of the overall time) became the impression of the entire experience. 

This phenomenon was replicated across multiple experiments using different trials. As Kahneman writes in his seminal work ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, “The experiencing self does not have a voice. 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 the decisions.” In a sense, when we build a branded atmosphere and experience, we are not contending with the in-the-moment experience, but rather the long-term memory ‘remembering self’ that will take an abridged snapshot and mark the whole thing as good or bad. From this, we learn that we don’t need to make something perfect in every breathing second, but rather to have enough light to the shade to tip the balance of the ‘remembering self’ into marking the whole thing favourably. And the good news is, that’s not as hard as you may imagine, as long as you hold the keys to the city…

Building your experience with the peak-end rule

So, here’s the challenge. Don’t let your customer experience be built by the city planning machine. Instead, hold the fort and design a step-by-step journey that has peaks woven in, and a powerful end. What I’d recommend is to draw a typical site plan and map out what an average journey with you might look like. Where are the peaks? What are you actively putting in place to build a killer in-store experience?

In a cafe or restaurant environment, it could be something like this…

The perfect experience 

Peak one:

Let’s start this journey where each customer will; at the door. Now, imagine if you will, a doorway that both physically and audibly sets up the ideal experience. It’s like the moment you open a can of Coke. When you open a can of Coke, the pleasure of the experience has already begun. There’s some interesting research to suggest that the strongest peak for drinking Coke is the moment just before you drink it. It’s the eager anticipation of what you’re about to experience that you find most arousing - within behavioural science, this is known as Expectancy Theory (see chapter 4).

The door opens with pleasing ease and you feel as if you can hear an audible sigh of relief as it shuts back into place. Aaah. Using the iso-principle, the entire customer experience has been mapped out to gradually ease their emotional states upwards, in order to leave them invigorated. The doorway is the perfect first step for this as crossing a doorway has been psychologically proven to ‘reset’ a person in expectation of a new chapter. It’s known simply as the ‘doorway effect’. From here, the curated music will harness the power of the iso-Principle to start the transition towards ever more positive states.

Peak two:

It’s time to order and pay. Now, instead of this being a moment that just passes you by, it’s used to create another peak. When you tap your card on the device it plays a pleasing or amusing sound, as if you’ve just won an award. Whilst it’s small, it’s a moment of auditory pleasure.

Peak three:

Waiting for an order carries perhaps the largest potential for discomfort. The good news is that studies have proven you can drastically reduce the pain of a wait by turning it into an ‘occupied wait’. Remember the airport example in our opening chapter? It’s a wait that’s accompanied by something else. In this example let’s imagine it’s something unexpected and unusual (which can often have the biggest impact), like handing out colouring in, for children and adults, too. It’s surprising, endearing, and distracts your focus away from the fact that you’re waiting for food. The result? A seemingly shorter wait.

Peak four:

Most customers will likely use the bathroom during their stay. Why not use this as an opportunity for world-class brand distinctiveness?

Imagine turning the bathroom into a serene soundscape, say a magical forest, a calming mountain or by the sea. No-one is likely to expect that, and it’ll certainly pique the interest of the customer. It’s also likely that they will perceive the bathroom cleanliness and physical environment much more favourably.

Peak five:

Next, customers will re-enter the main restaurant space. Instead of the music being constant, their arousal levels have been intentionally brought down in the bathroom so that they experience re-entering the restaurant as a lift in mood. Using the ‘doorway effect’ mentioned above, we’ve just turned the toilets (all of places) into another peak; a brand distinction piece with much improved impressions and a boost in mood as they re-enter the restaurant.

Peak six:

Let’s not drop the ball at the final touchpoint - the bin! 

Putting your rubbish in the bin is a bit of a thankless task. The lid can be awkward, pushing all the leftovers around as you try and slide it into the small gap. It would be a real shame for all of that uplifting work to be undone by an annoying bin.

Why not take a leaf out of McDonald’s book and have staff that are already on the floor intercept to take rubbish off your hands (literally)? A nice, unexpected touch that rounds off the experience in a pleasant way. 

The end:

So much focus is often given to the beginning of an experience, and yet the end arguably has more of an impact. An interesting study conducted in 2002 by David Strohmetz et al. showed that an unexpected ‘gift’ (in this instance, giving customers sweets with their bill) increased tips by 23%. Now, we’re not focusing on tips here, but imagine the final touchpoint with your brand being an unexpected gift - some free nuts, or a take-home playlist. That would be a nice move to make sure this ‘end’ in our peak-end rule customer journey is pulling its weight.

To find out more about the world’s first behavioural science book specific to retail and hospitality, head here.

Using Behavioural Science: The Peak-End Rule

Abbie Dawson

Marketing Manager at Startle. I'm in charge of our marketing activity, making sure to spread the word of Startle to as many brands as possible. When I'm not working, you'll find me vinyl shopping to add to my collection or working out at the gym (usually making enemies with a punching bag).

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