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The Peak-End Rule’s Missing Piece

Jim Tincher Jim Tincher 08/15/2023

I’m a huge fan of author Daniel Kahneman. His first book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a great CX resource, even though it’s not about customer experience per se. The most valuable takeaway for CX pros is probably the “peak-end rule.” As Kahneman explains the concept, you can approximate how someone feels about an experience overall by averaging the peak point of emotions and how the experience ends.

The research behind the peak-end rule was pioneered by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Barbara Fredrickson. Their investigations into how people evaluate past experiences stemmed from the observation that humans do not weigh every moment of an experience equally when assessing its overall pleasantness or unpleasantness. Instead, they seem to disproportionately remember the most emotionally intense moments (peaks) and the final moments (ends).

To validate and understand this phenomenon, Kahneman and Fredrickson conducted a series of experiments, one of the most notable involving participants immersing their hand in painfully cold water under different conditions. In one scenario, participants submerged their hand in cold water at a specific temperature for a set time. In another, they submerged their hand in water at the same initial temperature but for a longer duration, with the final moments of prolonged exposure being slightly warmer, hence less painful. When asked to evaluate the discomfort of the two experiences, participants consistently rated the longer exposure (with a less painful end) as more tolerable, even though it was objectively more painful due to its duration. This experiment, along with others, provided empirical support for the peak-end rule, demonstrating that our memories of experiences are primarily shaped by their most emotionally intense moments and how they conclude.

His signature example is a colonoscopy. With a cancer screening, subjects who received a positive test result after the procedure rated the experience lower than those who received a negative result. That unwelcome news at the end of the experience led patients to recall the entire experience as worse, even though, rationally, the procedure was the same regardless of the outcome.

Who had more pain?

The other part of that colonoscopy example is how patients rated the overall pain. All patients had the same peak pain. After about 10-15 minutes of a procedure, the pain maximizes, and the procedure is complete a few minutes later. With a group of patients, the doctors left the instruments in for another 10 minutes with some pain but a lesser amount. Those that had the procedure finished as soon as it could, right after the peak pain, reported more pain than those who had the longer procedure and thus actually experienced more pain. This learning helped doctors with turning painful medical treatments into a more positive memory.

Baggage claim as the final moments of a trip

Delta Airlines used the peak-end rule to address the peak-end theory of the often negative experiences and feelings associated with picking up luggage at the end of a journey. Delta saw that customers who indicated they were dissatisfied with the wait for luggage were less likely to be satisfied with the over all trips. To make the final moments of their trip better, they redesigned the experience. Delta started making the luggage carousel farther away from the gate the plane arrived at. The walking time was longer to reach the luggage carousel, but the wait time at the baggage claim was dramatically less. The result was that baggage wait satisfaction and the associated trip satisfaction went up in this test.

This is also why at The Oceanaire Seafood Room, they make it a point to have at least five people thank you for coming as you exit the restaurant.

(All CX leaders should familiarize themselves with the peak-end rule. But I’m not gonna lie: Kahneman’s book is a tough read. The psychological science is pretty dense. However, it will make you a better CX leader if you invest the time and focus to tackle it.)

The peak-end rule is a terrific guidepost for CX, and Kahneman cites great research that applies to many of our clients. It works well for customer experience. Much of the time.


Kahneman’s an academic, not a CX leader. As such, he limited his research to short-term experiences. (Though, arguably, a colonoscopy probably doesn’t feel like a short experience.)

So the findings are incomplete, which limits their broad application.

Take a wider view

Most of the experiences we’re managing in CX are longer-term in nature. That includes things like applying for a mortgage, co-creating innovative products with a client, or filing an automobile claim.

Longer processes entail many more touchpoints and opportunities to react. That introduces a third critical point in the equation, beyond the peak point of intense emotions, and the intense point of ending.

I discovered this third critical interaction while we mapped the life insurance purchasing journey for a client. We studied their customers over a period of weeks, to get a fuller understanding of the journey.

Tyranny of the remembering mind

It’s critical to watch customers as they go through an experience. This relates to another of Kahneman’s findings: that we live under the “tyranny of the remembering mind.” The concept elucidates the distinction between our “experiencing self” and our “remembering self.”

 Experiencing self

The “experiencing self” is the aspect of us that lives in the present, feeling happiness, pain, joy, or other emotions in real-time. It encompasses every moment of our existence. In contrast, the “remembering self” is the part of us that recalls past events and experiences. Kahneman suggests that our remembering self dominates our experiencing self, often leading to decisions based on memories, recognizing feelings, or recalling past events — not actual ongoing experiences.

 Peak moments are key

This tyranny reveals itself in many facets of our lives. For example, when we evaluate the quality of past experiences, we’re heavily influenced by peak moments (whether positive or negative) and the experience’s ending, rather than the duration of intense moment or the entirety of the event. Thus, long vacations might be remembered by a few standout moments and the end, rather than the entire experience. This dominance of the “remembering self” shapes our choices and future decisions, sometimes at the cost of our immediate or prolonged well-being. It underscores the sometimes-disproportionate power our memories wield over our present experiences.

Capture both the experiencing mind and the remembering mind

So to truly understand an experience, you need to talk with people who have finished the journey (capturing the remembering mind), as well as those currently going through it (to tap the experiencing mind).

In this case, the experiencing mind led us to a significant discovery.

Life insurance purchasing journey

Half the participants came into the life insurance purchasing journey feeling anxious, while the rest were neutral or positive. And we found that these incoming mindsets were difficult to change. Those who entered the experience feeling positive tended to remain that way for the duration of the journey. Similarly, those who were anxious or uncertain at the outset also ended the process feeling negative. The same touchpoints that negative customers reported as being incredibly frustrating were non-issues for those who began the journey feeling more positive memories.

In the end, we found there were a few customers who flipped from negative to positive. What made the difference?

Those customers’ financial advisors met with them to explain the process. This set their expectations and demonstrated someone was there to support them and help them succeed.

That reassurance was a game-changer.

Ethnographies fight cognitive bias

We use ethnographies, particularly digital ethnographies, to be able to capture the experiencing mind. An ethnography is where you follow a person as they go through the process of the customer journey. One of our early projects was with a grocery store chain. We had researchers meet people at their homes before a shopping trip. They would talk to them there and then journey with them to the store and throughout the shopping experience. We could ask questions and observe as a customer was experiencing the interaction with the grocery store.

Non-profit research

As part of our research for a non-profit, we used interviews to tap the remembering mind, but went to in-person events to capture the experiencing mind. The people that talked about events as they remembered them focused on a few key moments. Those that were in the experiencing mind were able to bring more detail of the experience to life. This gave us a rich set of data to compare.

Retail example

In a more recent project, we used a digital ethnography platform to follow customers as they shopped online and in-store. We were able to discover that different short-term needs drove different channel usage.

You may have seen this in your own work. Some customers breeze through a certain form. Others rant for six paragraphs in your survey about how terrible that same form is. Because the crux of the problem isn’t really the form itself – it’s the customer’s mindset. (But still, fix that form!)

Starting on the right foot

The beginning is the third journey touchpoint (in addition to the peak and end) that you need to manage in longer-term experiences. Customers may not even remember their first interactions with you, but they can impact their perceptions and behavior long into the future.

Onboarding experience with B2B affects the beginning and the end

For this reason, the onboarding experience is often the most important journey to get a handle on. If onboarding goes poorly, it can set the tone – and duration! – of your entire customer relationship. If it goes well, it can pay dividends for years to come.

Take a distributor’s journey that we mapped. When onboarding was quick and effective, customers had more confidence in the distributor, which led them to order more from the company. When onboarding dragged on, customers either stopped working with the company entirely or limited their orders to a narrow slice of products.

HubSpot’s CRM onboarding overhaul


HubSpot, a leading marketing, sales, and service software provider, had an onboarding process that was deemed complex for many B2B clients. New users faced a steep learning curve, and the multitude of features within the CRM system often led to confusion.


Recognizing the pain points, HubSpot reevaluated its onboarding approach. They implemented an interactive tutorial that guided users through the main features, using real-time prompts. They also incorporated a series of instructional videos and resources within the platform, catering to users who preferred self-paced learning.


The new onboarding experience led to quicker user proficiency. HubSpot reported increased engagement rates with their tools, a decrease in the number of support tickets related to basic queries, and higher retention rates among new clients. These changes ultimately contributed to an uptick in customer lifetime value and positive word-of-mouth referrals.

DocuSign’s customer success-driven onboarding


DocuSign, an e-signature solution provider, had a generic onboarding process. However, as their suite of services expanded, B2B customers found the process overwhelming, not knowing which features were most relevant to their business.


DocuSign shifted from a one-size-fits-all model to a Customer Success-driven onboarding. This entailed understanding a client’s unique business goals and challenges first and then tailoring the onboarding process to align with those objectives. The onboarding was accompanied by milestone check-ins, ensuring clients were deriving maximum value from the platform.


B2B customers found this approach more aligned with their goals. The new onboarding process not only increased product adoption, but also identified upsell opportunities early on. DocuSign experienced a decrease in early-stage churn and an increase in customer satisfaction scores, directly impacting their bottom line.

Siemens’ digital twin onboarding experience


Siemens, a global heavyweight in the manufacturing and industrial sector, introduced the concept of a “Digital Twin” – a digital replica of physical assets, processes, people, places, systems, and devices that can be used for various purposes. This was a novel concept for many of their B2B clients, involving a mix of IoT, AI, and data analytics. The initial onboarding process was technically dense, often overwhelming clients with the complexity of setting up and utilizing Digital Twins effectively.


Recognizing the challenge, Siemens decided to revamp the onboarding process for this service. They initiated a step-by-step onboarding guide, breaking down the process into digestible modules. The first part focused on the foundational understanding of the concept and its benefits. Subsequent stages delved into technical integrations, data analysis interpretation, and real-time applications. Siemens also introduced dedicated “Digital Twin Specialists” as part of the onboarding process. These specialists worked closely with B2B clients, ensuring a smooth setup, answering queries, and demonstrating best practices.


The revised onboarding process made a world of difference. Clients could gradually understand and appreciate the value of Digital Twins, ensuring a deeper and more effective implementation. Feedback indicated that clients felt more supported and equipped to harness the full potential of the tool. For Siemens, this led to an increased adoption rate of the Digital Twin solution, bolstered client retention, and a higher number of referrals in the industrial space. Moreover, the comprehensive onboarding process reduced the number of support tickets and troubleshooting requests in both the beginning and subsequent stages, ensuring a smoother post-sales experience for both Siemens and its clients.

Focusing on the beginning of the experience also impacts the peak-end rule. A great onboarding experience is likely to make the peak point of emotions more positive. From there, the impact continues as it fuels a more positive ending. All told, that means more customers who are more positive memories more loyal and more eager to work with you.

A strategic approach using the peak-end rule

For companies to capitalize on the peak-end rule, a strategic approach is essential:

Spotting the Peaks: Delve into the customer journey to identify potential peak moments. This often means addressing pain points and exceeding expectations. The best companies use customer journey mapping to find the Moment of Truth (moments that have a disproportionate impact on the journey) and pain points. This gives you a true vision of what is most important to a customer. It lets you know where you need to focus your efforts.

Crafting Memorable Ends: The journey’s conclusion must leave a lasting positive impression, thereby shaping the overarching memory. The key here is crafting. In the examples above, you see companies looking at their journeys and taking the time to design endings and implement changes that will leave customers with happy memories create a high point during the final moments.

Starting Strong: The start of the journey sets the tone for the rest of the experience. If you are to achieve a higher peak and a better end, the start will have a significant impact. This also does not happen by accident. Make changes and measure to see if people are staying longer, spending more, or costing less to serve.

Iterative Assessment: The implementation of the peak-end rule isn’t a one-off. Continual feedback collection and adjustments ensure optimal results. There are now so many great tools to help you make sure you are staying on top of the experience. It is important to implement a listening strategy that uses surveys (with closed loop) and AI tools to analyze calls to make sure the experiences are meeting expectations, understanding when a redesign is needed.

As you design journeys, it’s clear you need to take the time to measure and manage the peak point of emotions (the ending, and the most intense points of the journey). But devoting extra time to understanding and optimizing the beginning of the journey is a compelling way to maximize your impact over time.

Because the beginning matters…whether customers remember it or not!

More on Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman, has made monumental contributions to the fields of psychology and behavioral economics, well beyond the peak-end rule.

One of Kahneman’s most significant contributions is the concept of “System 1” and “System 2” thinking, as detailed in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. System 1 represents our intuitive, automatic, and often emotional way of thinking. It operates quickly and with little effort. System 2, on the other hand, is slower, deliberate, and more logical. It’s involved in more complex decision-making processes and requires more cognitive effort. Kahneman illustrates how these two systems interact and how they can lead to cognitive biases, impacting our judgments and choices.

Another pivotal area of Kahneman’s work revolves around “prospect theory,” which he co-developed with Amos Tversky. This theory challenges traditional economic ideas of rational decision-making. Instead, it suggests that people make decisions based on perceived gains and losses relative to a reference point, rather than absolute outcomes. In essence, the pain of a loss is typically more potent than the pleasure of a comparable gain.

This groundbreaking theory reshaped the understanding of risk-taking and decision-making, earning Kahneman the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002. Beyond these, Kahneman’s extensive research has delved into a multitude of cognitive biases, framing effects, and the roles of happiness and well-being in decision-making, marking him as one of the most influential thinkers of our time.

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