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Wired: Your Brain Prefers Happy Endings. That’s Not Always Smart

In a study published Monday in The Journal of Neuroscience, Vestergaard and coauthor Wolfram Schultz show that participants prefer experiences with happy endings to experiences that became slightly less enjoyable towards the end. Based on fMRI imaging, they were able to suggest some of the mechanical underpinnings of this preference by showing that different parts of the brain preserve and process different pieces of information from the same experience. “The specific idea that we were interested in in this work is the disconnect between what people enjoy and what they want,” says Vestergaard. Although people may enjoy sunny beach vacations, if they don’t remember them fondly due to rainy days, they won’t opt for those experiences again when they are available in the future. “If people don’t choose what they enjoy, then their choices don’t really serve their best interests.” This phenomenon, known as the “happy ending effect,” has been recorded by researchers before. In one study, Daniel Kahneman had colonoscopy patients rank their pain at intervals throughout the procedure, then asked them to rank how painful the experience was after it was over. The length of the procedure didn’t affect participants’ memories. Rather, the peak intensity of the pain and the pain during the last three minutes of the procedure influenced patients’ memories the most. The more painful those final minutes, the worse the memory. When it comes to the way people respond to scarce resources, we might even try to game our own neurobiology. Behavioral economists George Loewenstein and Drazen Prelec published a paper in Psychological Review suggesting that people prefer an improving trend or sequence of experiences, rather than a decreasing trend, because they like reveling in the anticipation of a positive event. “Individuals are not helpless in the face of their urges,” Loewentstein and Prelec wrote. Read more at Wired.