Why First Impressions Don’t Matter Much For Experiences

We all know first impressions matter. We’ve all been told to be extra careful about how we come across in the initial seconds of a job interview or a first date. So we sweat over handshakes and shirt colors.

But first impressions aren’t so important for experiences, according to recent research. While we judge people based on the first few moments we encounter them for, we judge experiences based on their final moments.

A recent article in the WSJ, “Hidden Ways Hotels Court Guests Faster”, focused on how hotels are trying to dazzle guests with first impressions. Luxury hotels try to make guests feel comfortable and valued as soon as they enter the lobby.

Jeremy McCarthy, a hotel executive, argues this is why “upon arriving to a luxury hotel, you are often greeted in the lobby by a friendly face, an offer to assist with your luggage, and sometimes a welcome beverage or a refreshing chilled towel to help wipe away the stress of travel.”

Research, however, seems to show that, while we remember people by first impressions, we don’t really remember experiences the same way. With experiences, we seem to remember the peak moments and how they end. McCarthy writes:

An example of the research that supports this “peak-end” theory, is the work on colonoscopy patients done by psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman found that after a painful colonoscopy treatment, patients would forget about the overall duration of the pain they experienced and would instead remember their experience based on the peak moments of pain and on how it ended.

A patient whose colonoscopy lasted an agonizing 25 minutes, for example (Patient B), would rate the experience better and would happily come back a year later for his follow-up appointment, as long as the treatment ended with less pain. Another patient (Patient A), who only had around 8 minutes of total pain, wouldn’t come back next year because he remembers the pain of how the experience ended.

The implications of this are pretty clear. If you run a hotel, for example, you want to focus more on the departure than the arrival. If your child is going for an injection, you might want to take them for ice cream straight afterward. If you’re going on holiday, you might want to do something you know you’ll enjoy on the last day, taking risks before then. If an employee is leaving your company, try to ensure their final week is low stress. There are numerous applications to embrace this effect.