Last night’s Colts-Patriots game was a painful experience. (As you probably guessed, I’m a Patriots fan.) But it wasn’t just painful because the Pats lost the game: it was how they lost the game. The Pats dominated the 1st half, only to have their 18 point lead slowly chipped away by Manning’s precision passes. The Colts scored the go-ahead touchdown with one minute remaining in the 4th quarter.
Based upon a careful introspection of my own Sunday night misery, I’m hereby proposing a new law of sports fandom: the inverse peak-end rule. This is an altered version of the traditional peak-end rule, a well known psychological law. According to the peak-end rule, we judge our past experiences based upon two variables: how they felt at at their peak and how they ended. Virtually all other information – such as the length of the experience, or the net amount of pain or pleasure we endured – is discarded and forgotten.
Here’s an example of the peak-end rule at work. In the early 1990’s, Daniel Kahneman conducted an experiment in which volunteers submerged their hands in cold water during two different trials. (This is a painful experience, but it causes no lasting harm.) On the first trial, the volunteers kept their hand in a chilly fifty-seven degree water bath for sixty seconds. After their hand returned to body temperature, the same volunteers participated in a second trial, during which their hand was submerged in the water bath for ninety seconds. The only difference was that after sixty seconds the water temperature was surreptitiously raised by a meager two degrees.
So which experience was more painful? At first glance, the answer seems obvious: the long trial is significantly worse, since it consists of enduring fifty percent more time in cold water. But when Kahneman asked the volunteers which trial they would rather repeat, almost everybody said the long one. Why? According to Kahneman, people judge their sensory experience relative to a peak reference point, which in this case was a fifty-seven degree water bath. As a result, when the water temperature was raised by two degrees, what the subjects perceived was an increase in warmth, which felt nice. Of course, they failed to notice that their hand had just spent an extra thirty seconds in (slightly less) cold water. The happy ending, relative to the cold peak temperature, made up for the overall increase in painful moments.
The sports version of the inverse-peak-end rule can be summarized as follows: the pain or pleasure of a sports game is directly dependent upon the peak performance of your team relative to the eventual outcome. So let’s apply this rule to the Colts-Pats game. After Samuels returned the Manning interception for a touchdown at the end of the 2nd half, I was foolishly convinced the game was over. I was making plans for the Superbowl, and thinking up ways the Pats could blitz Rex Grossman. (I know, I know: pride goeth before the fall.) Alas, the 2nd half was one long slide into disaster (an inversion of the peak experience), and the game ended very, very badly. So Patriots fans had a high peak – the Pats looked perfect for the first 30 minutes – followed by a bad ending. This made my Sunday night rather miserable.
The good news is that the inverse-peak-end rule made the folks in Indiana very happy.
The better news is that people are terrible at affective forecasting, and by tonight I’ll be much less upset about the outcome of the game than I think I will be.