Tiring or Inspiring? Boost Onboarding with the Peak-End Rule

Remember the last time you fished around the bottom of an ice-cold cooler for your beverage of choice? Imagine keeping your hand in that frigid water for more than a couple seconds. Not a pleasant hypothetical, huh? However, let’s say you’ve got two options. Option 1: you immerse your hand for 60 seconds and, after the minute has passed, you’re done. Option 2: you submerge your hand for 90 seconds total, but the temperature will increase by 2° F after the first 60 seconds. So, the difference between Option 1 and Option 2 is that the second offering includes a bonus period of 30 seconds of still-pretty-much-ice-cold water. Which unfavorable option are you leaning toward?

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, published by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman in 2011, he suggests that we have two selves: the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self is the one that does the moment-to-moment living, and the remembering self holds onto the memories made along the way. Philosopher Yuval Noah Harari described similar selves in his 2015 book Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow: the experiencing self and the narrating self. Kahneman and Harari agree that the experiencing self is the one living life, while the remembering (or narrating) self takes shortcuts based on memories alone. Harari explained that the memory-focused self “doesn’t narrate everything, and usually weaves the story using only peak moments and end results.”

Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

When it comes to the ice-cold water, Option 1 seems like a no-brainer; it’s less time in an uncomfortable situation. However, data suggests the opposite. In a study published in Psychological Science in 1993, participants engaged in Options 1 (60 seconds total) and Option 2 (90 seconds total) in differing order. Then participants got to choose whether they’d repeat Option 1 or Option 2 for a third and final hand-in-ice-water submersion. More than two-thirds of participants wanted to repeat the longer option (Option 2) because they claimed to have experienced less discomfort. Their two selves were in combat, and the remembering self was victorious.

What we’re witnessing is a phenomenon known as the peak-end rule. Harari was right; people often evaluate experiences based on how they felt at the most intense point (its peak) and how they felt at its end. In other words, an experience is judged based on snippets – or snapshots – rather than its entire duration. Think about a time you had to call your internet provider and deal with a customer service agent (or seven). In the moment, your experiencing self likely compared the frustrating call to a series of between-fingers papercuts. However, if the call ended with an account credit, your remembering self was probably satisfied overall – and that’s what matters to your internet provider: customer satisfaction.

Let’s consider the peak-end rule and how it applies to the workplace. When Korn Ferry polled company executives about new-hire retention, 90 percent said it was an issue for their organization. Further, the executives were asked about onboarding and how it related to retention. Only 2 percent did not consider onboarding a key factor, compared to 24 percent who answered “somewhat” and 74 percent who gave a definitive yes. Gallup further found that “only 12 percent of employees strongly agree their organization does a great job of onboarding new employees.” Clearly, there’s a stark contrast between what executives want and what employees are experiencing. What can organizations do to close the gap?

“Organizations need to provide immersive experiences that let employees feel your values, not just be able to name them.”
-Creating an Exceptional Onboarding Journey for New Employees

Nobody’s saying a flash-mob needs to show up and do a benefits-themed dance. Instead of an onboarding overhaul, make small improvements to spice up your orientation so that it has some high points and ends favorably. If there’s nothing remarkable about your process, you’re missing the opportunity to make a positive first impression. It’s important that employees truly like your workplace, so it’s wise to start as soon as possible. For example, your onboarding process shouldn’t simply talk about your company’s culture; it should show your company’s culture.

There will inevitably be parts of onboarding that aren’t exciting; after all, paperwork is paperwork. Remember this, though: it doesn’t have to be glitz and glamour throughout. Drudging through all those forms and contracts isn’t an issue if employees wrap it up by signing a branded, user-friendly, culture-first employee handbook. Or maybe your entire orientation ends with the presentation of a good-humored certificate of survival. Perhaps employees are encouraged to find a gift awaiting them at their desk. If there’s a positive peak and a pleasant ending, the remembering self will be left with a favorable impression.

We can all agree that it’s best if your new hires make it through onboarding without frozen fingertips. With a few simple tweaks inspired by the peak-end rule, you can quickly have employees in the palm of your [warm] hand.

Drew Dotson

Drew Dotson

Drew enjoys eating cheese, cuddling with dogs, doing puzzles, and watching sports. She is passionate about raising awareness (and funds) for cystic fibrosis.


  1. […] A page out of Blissbook: Tiring or Inspiring? Boost Onboarding with the Peak-End Rule […]

  2. […] one part surprise/novelty with one part peak-end rule and bake until you’ve prepared a savory memory of onboarding. You could turn your boring employee […]

  3. […] The peak-end rule means people often evaluate an experience based on how they felt at the most intense point (its peak) and how they felt at its end. If there’s a positive peak and a pleasant end, new employees will be left with a favorable impression. […]


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