The Stupid Bit Of Cognitive Science That Means Boris Johnson Will Get Away With It

All's not well that ends well.

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The peak-end rule is a cognitive heuristic, a sort of mental shortcut which means we tend to judge experiences largely on how we felt at their most intense point and how we felt at the end. It’s not that we don’t remember the rest of it: it just doesn’t seem to factor into the way we feel about it afterwards. Neither, oddly, does how long the experience lasted. 

So: we’ll have fonder memories of an average holiday, say, if we have a really good last night and an easy journey home. More perversely, research has found that an uncomfortable medical procedure can be made to seem more bearable if it ends on an otherwise pointless but less uncomfortable bit, even though this is, as is obvious if you think about it for half a second, actually an increase in the total amount of discomfort involved. It’s really very odd. 

I wondered a few weeks back why I had begun to feel as if I’ve been locked inside for a year, when for the second half of 2020 the outside world was more open than not. The peak-end rule offers an explanation: the whole of the past 12 months has been bundled together in a memory labelled “Plague Year”. The brain instinctively remembers the nadir, those days when the whole thing felt so hopeless that even getting out of bed seemed like an impossible and pointless challenge. It also remembers that it’s still going on. It doesn’t so easily recall the months from June until November, when the world was only slightly rubbish. Those memories are still there, but they don’t so easily connect with our judgement. 

The peak-end rule also leads me to suspect that the future will be a depressing place, too – because the government of Boris Johnson is going to get away with its handling of Covid-19. It’s been absolutely shambolic for most of the pandemic. It locked down too late. It’s shovelled money towards cronies, yet entirely failed to build a working test and trace system. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s “Eat Out To Help Out” policy was meant to subsidise people to go to restaurants, but almost certainly subsidised a second wave into the bargain. It’s declined to close the borders to prevent new, more dangerous variants from getting in, despite the fact control of the borders was a huge and explicit part of its pre-election platform, thus making it abundantly clear that viruses are more welcome in Britain than actual refugees. 

The result of all this: Britain has a worse per capita death rate than any other large country in the world. 

But over the last few months the government has finally done something right: rolled out its vaccine programme, quickly and, more surprisingly, competently. As of this weekend, the proportion of the adult population to have had their first jab passed 50%. It’s getting to the point where, functional human that I am, I am becoming genuinely a little resentful I still haven’t had mine, because what’s the point of sliding inexorably into middle age if I don’t get even this?

And people have noticed. Here’s Ipsos Mori:

Tory governments have often instinctively made use of the peak-end rule.  Consider all those pre-election budgets when a previously Scrooge-like Chancellor would start chucking money around like, well, Scrooge at the end of the book. Consider George Osborne’s failure to do that in 2016, with predictable consequences for the referendum. 

I don’t think that’s what’s happened here. The success of the vaccine roll-out was no more part of a coherent strategy than the disaster that preceded it. But the government nonetheless got the thing that might be people’s last big memory of the pandemic right, and that will likely hold it in good stead at the polls.

The peak-end rule is a cognitive heuristic. The peak-end rule is bloody stupid.

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