Stand up Comedy and Colonoscopies; The Peak-End Rule at work

You probably aren’t thinking about Jerry Seinfeld when a doctor shoves a stick up your rectum. However, these two subjects might not be as far removed as you think.

A Comedian delivering a 30 minute set and a Doctor performing a 30 minute Colonoscopy have the power to shape how their audience receives their work. Not physically. That stick, and that joke, is going one place and one place only. Mentally however, and emotionally, the doctor and comedian have the creative control to send you home thinking about the experience in a variety of ways.

Colonoscopy = Pain. That is the general association with the procedure. I don’t know this from first hand experience, but I’ll take millions of men at their word. However, studies have shown that how exactly the pain is distributed throughout the procedure affects how the patient remembers the painfulness of the operation.

Let’s run that back:
How exactly the pain is distributed throughout the procedure affects how the patient remembers the painfulness of the operation.

The studies measure the fluctuation in a patient’s pain levels throughout the colonoscopy procedure. If you are interested in reading the original article, check out

https://www.amherst.edu/system/files/media/0678/colonoscopy%202.pdf.

Here is a general summary:

The colonoscopies with pain levels starting off low and gradually ending on a very painful note were perceived after the fact as being a miserable experience. Extremely painful and unpleasant.

The colonoscopies that fluctuated in pain level throughout and maybe spiked toward the middle, but ended on a lower pain level, were thought of more positively. Not that bad—still painful, but had a much less negative review by patients after the fact.

Based on this study and others like it, the researchers concluded that people don’t have pure, perfect memory for their emotional experience of events. Our brains are frugal and look to cut corners wherever possible. We simply don’t have the capacity to remember every moment we experience, how we felt about it at the time, and then compute some sort of weighted average of these stored feelings when recalling the experience later.

Due to these limitations, people generally use a heuristic, or a rule of thumb, when thinking about a past experience and judging how they felt at the time. The heuristic people often use is now called the Peak-End Rule, in which we treat the two most vivid, easiest to remember parts of the experience—the peak or most intense part, and the end—as stand-ins for feelings about the whole experience. This heuristic often leads to more or less accurate judgments because the peak and the end usually correspond roughly to how we felt throughout an experience. But as this study showed, when the peak and/or end aren’t representative of the whole experience, people have the tendency to show systematic biases in their memory of the event.

How does this apply to stand up comedy?

On a random night of comedy where you see 5+ comedians perform, why are some comedians remembered more favorably than other comedians? Are there other forces at work besides the quality of jokes? Should comedians be more attentive to tapping into the mental heuristics their audience uses—or if they’re doing something like this already while unaware of the peak-end rule, are they doing it optimally?

In stand up comedy it is essential to have “a good closer.” Leave the audience on a high note. Whether it is the biggest joke or something that ties different pieces of the set together, the ending is crucial. If a comedian begins with their best material first, they are in danger of losing the audience if they underwhelm with their subsequent jokes. Unfortunately we can’t all be as brilliant as Dave Chappelle or Jerry Seinfeld who have an arsenal of top tier jokes. A successful comedian knows where his or her biggest laughs are–and how their placement affects how they’ll be remembered later–and plans accordingly.

There is no formula for success on the stage. Everyone has their own style and rythm, their own cadence and expressions. People have off nights and nights when they absolutely kill. What is the difference? Is the audience in a bad mood? Or is the comedian not maximizing their comedic output?

In summation, a comedian should be mindful of how his shtick is received by the audience–a gentle hand is best, with thoughtful placement of the most memorable parts for greatest lasting impact.

Other potential (and amusing) Peak-End applications:

Interviews

If the interviewer’s memory of your interview is most important, will applying the Peak-End Rule maximize your chances of getting the job? Should you save some of your best speaking points for the end?

Work Presentations

Improve upon your presentation skills and stand out at work by putting yourself in the audience’s shoes. Applying the Peak-End Rule, think about what the audience will remember and how to maximize positive feedback.

Trip to the Dentist

People don’t often rave about their trips to the dentist. How can the dentist influence the patient’s memory of the experience so they won’t be unenthusiastic when thinking about making their next appointment?

Vacations

Think about the best vacations you’ve ever taken. Why were they the best? Do you notice any subtle Peak-End reasons for the positive memory of these experiences?

Dating

Can you score yourself a second date by making a concerted effort to apply the Peak-End Rule? Is the end of a date more important than the beginning?