Oct. 19 (UPI) -- Humans rely on their experiences to inform their decision making process, but new research suggests the "happy ending effect" prevents humans from accurately gauging the true value of an experience.
Previous studies have shown that humans overemphasize the ending of an experience when assessing its value. For example, a spell of bad weather on the last couple days of a vacation can leave travelers with a feeling of disappointment, spoiling their impression of the otherwise enjoyable trip.
New research, published Monday in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests the phenomenon can interfere with a person's ability to make good decisions.
"When you're deciding where to go for dinner, for example, you think about where you've had a good meal in the past," lead study author Martin Vestergaard said in a news release.
"But your memory of whether that meal was good isn't always reliable -- our brain values the final few moments of the experience more highly than the rest of it. If we can't control our in-built attraction to happy endings, then we can't trust our choices to serve our best interests," said Vestergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge in Britain.
For the study, researchers had participants select between two streams of coins falling into a bucket in quick succession. Larger coins were higher in value.
One stream was greater in value but ended with a succession of smaller coins, while the other less-valuable stream ended with a run of bigger coins. Participants consistently -- and incorrectly -- selected the stream that ended with larger coins.
Researchers used brain activity recordings and computational models to better understand the phenomenon. The analysis confirmed that the experience valuation process was encoded in the amygdala.
The study's authors suggest it's important for the human brain to observe the upward or downward trajectory of an experience -- but the process can also impair a person's ability to accurately evaluate an overall experience.
"Our attraction to the quality of the final moment of an experience is exploited by politicians seeking re-election; they will always try to appear strong and successful toward the end of their time in office," said Vestergaard. "If you fall for this trick, and disregard historical incompetence and failure, then you might end up re-electing an unfit politician.
"Sometimes it's worth taking the time to stop and think," he said. "Taking a more analytical approach to complement your intuitive judgement can help ensure you're making a rational decision."