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Irrational Positivity: Saving the Last for Best

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The year 2011 was a dismal time in American public life. The nation came close to defaulting, and lost its AAA credit rating for the first time ever. The do-nothing Congress did -- well, nothing. The GOP seriously offered up the likes of Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain as its best and brightest for the country's future. Policemen in riot gear pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters. And public discourse sank to an all-time low in coarseness and partisanship.

So how will we recall 2011 when we look back on it? Most likely with warmth and good cheer.

Say what? That's right. We will most likely remember the end of 2011 -- the holiday festivities and family gatherings -- positively, simply because it is the end of the year. And because we have a positive memory of December 2011, we will also end up with general good feelings about the year gone by.

That, at least, is the implication of some recent research on what's called the "positivity bias." Two University of Michigan psychological scientists, Ed O'Brien and Phoebe Ellsworth, knew from previous research that people are highly sensitive to the timing of events when making judgments. Especially with big life events, we irrationally view "lasts" as positive, and this positive evaluation drives our global judgments. For example, recalling graduation makes most people think of their entire school experience as a good one.

But what about more ordinary "lasts" that we experience more commonly -- like the last chapter of a book, the last spoonful of soup -- or the last days of yet another year? O'Brien and Ellsworth decided to explore this question in one simple laboratory experiment. They told a group of volunteers that they would be part of a taste test for a new Hershey Kiss. This was a ruse; in fact, the volunteers ate five chocolates of different (but unnamed) flavors: milk, dark, crème, caramel and almond. They didn't know in advance how many chocolates they would be tasting and they ate them in random order, rating their enjoyment of each.

But here's the twist. For each of the five chocolates, the experimenter said, "Here is your next chocolate." But for some volunteers, when it came to the fifth chocolate, the experimenter said, "Here is your last chocolate." In other words, some knew this was the last chocolate when they rated it, while others rated it thinking it was just one more in a series. Finally, each volunteer indicated their favorite chocolate, and also rated their enjoyment of the entire experience.

The results were clear. As described online this week in the journal Psychological Science, volunteers found the fifth chocolate more enjoyable when it was identified as "last" rather than "next." What's more, most who ate the "last" chocolate chose that one as their favorite overall; relatively few chose the fifth chocolate as their favorite if it was labeled simply as "next." And finally, those who concluded the "taste testing" with a "last" chocolate described the overall experience as more enjoyable. That is, simply identifying the "last" chocolate as the "last" made eating it more positive, and this emotion colored global judgments of enjoyment.

So endings are powerful, the scientists conclude. Even commonplace endings. This means that relatively pleasant endings can put a positive spin on even long, painful experiences, like the year 2011. And by this time next year, we'll likely have the same warm feelings about 2012.

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