“All’s well that ends well,” Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago. These words seem reasonable to us, but they contain the trap of thinking. A case with a happy ending is not necessarily positive in its entirety. And an event that did not end as well as we would like is not necessarily completely bad.
For example, if you played poker and won two out of five rounds in the middle, you should be more happy than if you won only the last one. But often this is not the case at all, because our brain loves a happy ending very much.
The problem is that by obsessing over the happy ending, we less appreciate the good things that happen in the process.
Let’s say you had a long vacation, most of the time the weather was great, and only on the last day it rained. In theory, the pleasure already received should not seem less because of the upsetting ending. But in practice, this last day can spoil the impression of the whole holiday. You might even think that it would be better if the vacation was shorter, but without rain at all.
This is the trap we often fall into when we think about past events, that is, we attach too much importance to the final stage of some experience and accept because of this bad decisions. After all, if, thanks to a happy ending, we assessed the whole action as positive, then we will try to repeat it. Although in reality, in general, it may not be so positive.
To better understand this phenomenon, researchers held little experiment. Its participants watched two pots on the screen, where gold coins fell, and then chose one of them. All this happened in an MRI scanner so that you could monitor brain activity.
It turned out that the reason for the happy ending trap lies in the work of the brain.
We register the value of our experiences through two different areas: the amygdala (commonly associated with emotions) and the insula (which, among other things, processes unpleasant experiences). If the experience we are evaluating does not have a good ending, then the insula inhibits the influence of the amygdala. When she is very active, the solutions are not the best. In the experiment, the correct decision would be to choose the pot that contains the most money, no matter what denomination coin fell into it last. However, not all participants succeeded.
Let’s take a more real-life example. You are going to have dinner at a restaurant and choose one of two – Greek or Italian. You’ve been to both before, so now you’re essentially asking your brain to figure out which one has the best food.
If in Greek all meals were “pretty good,” then the whole dinner was “pretty good.” But if in Italian the first course was “so-so”, the second was “ok”, and the dessert was “simply amazing”, you might get the wrong impression. Now you can count all the food there better than it is and go there again.
A tasteless dinner is a rather harmless effect of the happy ending trap, but the consequences can be more serious.
This feature of our brain can be used against us.
Advertising, fake news, marketing ploys—anything that seeks to influence our decisions can use our love of happy endings to their own advantage. So don’t forget to help your brain:
- Remind yourself of this trap.
- Before making an important decision, try to evaluate all the information, for example, make a list of pros and cons.
- Check the data, and do not rely only on intuition or your imperfect memory.