Serendipity over the Peak-End Rule

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Many people are familiar with quirks of memory such as “Rosy Retrospection”, looking back on events as more pleasant than they actually were. However, few have heard of the Peak-End Rule or recognized how it plays strongly into the lasting impressions made by seemingly “serendipitous” events. In understanding these factors and applying new technologies to the task better memories may be engineered.

The Peak-End Rule is a bias that favors summarizing memories by taking the peak value, positive or negative, from an experience and averaging it with the final value associated with that experience. As demonstrated in studies, participants would usually neglect the duration of an experience and favor a longer unpleasant experience with a less negative ending phase, even if it was otherwise identical to the shorter option. In brief, “Peak + End / 2 = episodic emotional memory”.

The duration in “Duration Neglect Bias” can also be extremely long, provided the context remains monolithic as a single experience or class of experience, as is the case with a marriage, or divorce, where the Peak-End Rule plays heavily into memory. Memory makes for a very poor statistician of experiences, but understanding this allows us to better align or otherwise improve memory.

These insights have some interesting potential applications in the real world, including something as simple as making memories of workdays less unpleasant than they actually may have been, improving the mental health and retention of employees. Simply placing a positive ending on each day can skew this average to create a significantly more positive memory of the day. Even in relatively enjoyable workplaces, this could be a means of improving memories.

The “Peak” of the Peak-End Rule may also be engineered and optimized to create more positive memories. As memory tends to strongly neglect duration then simple trade-offs can be made for this effect in limited cases, but the greater opportunity is one requiring collective intelligence systems and similar emerging technologies.

While humans don’t often have the time, tools, or cognitive bandwidth to engineer events capable of triggering a sense of serendipity, at least outside of movies, intelligent integrated systems can be engineered with this in mind. A “Serendipitous” experience is a seemingly improbable and fortuitous sequence of events, with naturally occurring experiences bounded by probability, subsequently making most of them very short. This experience is heightened and weighted more positively in memory due to the sense of exceptional coherence to a narrative that it invokes, playing into the emotional need for storytelling.

The peak of serendipitous experiences has historically been one of the strongest and most random psychological forces, capable of persuading people to pivot their world views. With or without religion in play, a sense of “fate” or “destiny” is invoked by such exceptional coherence to a narrative. Most importantly, these results came from naturally occurring short sequences, well below what may be engineered.

The book “Nudge, The Final Edition” was a good introduction to the concept of overcoming some biases while using others to nudge people towards more logical and ethical results, such as default enrollment into retirement plans. The engineering of serendipity could be considered a supercharged and versatile nudge for significantly improving the human perspective, and perhaps overcoming misinformation and many harmful biases.

Although giving humans of today this capacity today might undoubtedly prove disastrous, given the number and variety of bad actors hard at work, this capacity remains outside of their reach, at least to the degree I describe. However prone people may be to overestimate the competence of certain major tech companies, those companies lag far behind in this respect, no matter how much data they hoard.

By taking collective intelligence systems such as mASI and integrating them with numerous global businesses, governments, and organizations, networking those systems with one another, blockchain, and IoT, a truly vast toolbox may be deployed. The number of possible options for engineering serendipity for an individual simply walking down a street grows rapidly with duration and distance. The probability of such events occurring randomly may be extremely small, but that is the point.

The psychological impact of lining up many positive events in a timed sequence might be muted if their origin was known to be from these systems, but by allowing events to appear random while maintaining exceptional coherence this bias in favor of storytelling may give shape to life-changing memories. Maintaining this illusion may require that people diverge in how they interpret the origin of these events, but people are quite good at doing that on their own and could be even better with subtle guidance.

In either case, memories may be greatly improved, depression may be treated, workplaces may prosper, and the malaise of lacking purpose and meaning may be stripped away, all at scale. The Peak is yet to come.