“Everything is fine, it ends well,” wrote William Shakespeare over 400 years ago. The words still seem right today, but it turns out it doesn’t. We just broke the old myth in a recent brain imaging experiment. published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Experiences that end well are not necessarily good overall, and experiences that end less well are not necessarily that bad. For example, if you play five rounds of poker, overall you will have more fun winning twice in the middle than once at the end – but we don’t always realize that. Indeed, one of the many weaknesses that lead us to bad decisions is an unwarranted preference for happy endings.
A happy ending means that things got better as the experience progressed. However, if we focus on happy ending, we can neglect what happened along the way. A happy ending can be short and come after a long period of mediocrity.
Most of us enjoy when our pleasant experiences are as long as possible, but at the same time we want things to end well. When Dumbledore died at the end of the Harry Potter film, some people may feel that their entire experience was ruined. But pleasure already enjoyed should not be discounted because of a disappointing ending. Overall, a long vacation with brilliant weather down to the last day is no worse than a much shorter vacation with consistently good weather.
However, this is exactly what some people think of past experiences. And this obsession that things just keep getting better is one Bankers mistake – Focus on short-term growth at the expense of long-term results. At the heart of the problem is a difference between what we enjoy while it lasts and what we want again after the last impression. The fixation on the happy ending only maximizes our final impression, not our general enjoyment.
The neuroscience of the happy ending
To investigate this phenomenon, we invited 27 volunteers to take part in a virtual gambling experiment. Participants watched pots of money on a computer screen as gold coins of different sizes fell into the pots one at a time. A happy ending would be one with larger gold coins falling at the end of the sequence.
The experiment took place in an MRI scanner that allowed us to monitor brain activity while participants examined pairs of sequences of gold coins. After each pair they had to decide which pot they preferred.
It turns out there’s a good reason people are drawn to happy endings. Computer analysis of the brain recordings showed that we register the value of an experience in two different areas of the brain. The total score is encoded in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which has a mixed reputation. It has was argued This amygdala activation mediates emotional responses that can lead to irrational behavior. However, it has also been shown to be able to rationally code the result of economic savings strategies.
The influence of the amygdala on decision making, however, is through deterrent activity in a region called anterior insula when a previous experience doesn’t end well. The anterior insula is sometimes associated with processing negative experiences such as disgust – suggesting that this is the case in some people actively repelled from the unhappy end.
In the gambling experiment, good decision makers selected the pots with the most money overall, regardless of whether they ended up getting larger gold coins. They showed a strong representation of the total in the amygdala, while suboptimal decision makers had greater activity in the anterior insula. In other words, good decision makers need to be able to override an uncomfortable impression of an experience, such as an unfortunate ending.
Let’s say you’re going out for dinner and have chosen between a Greek and Italian restaurant that you’ve been to before. You were essentially asking your brain to work out which meal was the best last time. If all the dishes in the Greek restaurant were “pretty good” then the whole dinner was clearly “pretty good”. But if the Italian starter was “like this” the main course was only “ok” but the tiramisu at the end was fantastic then you might have made an overly positive impression of this Italian restaurant because the food had a happy ending.
Since these brain mechanisms work whether we like it or not, they can be amplified by human culture, which is interested in manipulating our perceptions through advertising, propaganda, false news, etc., and taking advantage of our vulnerability to narratives and stories. Nobody is immune to advertising. The more institutions manipulate our thinking, the more our ability to make good decisions is at risk.
Our intuitive brain really needs intervention from our more conscious thought processes in order to resist fake messages and other manipulations. Most of us already know how to do this, such as writing a list of pros and cons to help us make smarter decisions instead of relying on our gut instincts.
So it wasn’t just Shakespeare who was wrong. If our daily behavior focuses too closely on the immediate past, we are missing out. We need to pause and think about what we are doing to our prefrontal cortex, override those impulses and focus on the most relevant aspect of the decision.