Customer Satisfaction – Peak-End Rule Broken with Price of Pizza

There is a stark difference between what we experience in the moment and how we later remember the overall enjoyment of an experience. From customer satisfaction with material goods or what we thought of the latest blockbuster or musical hit, to pondering upon past trials and tribulations in assessing life satisfaction, the peak–end rule has been consistently demonstrated to accurately predict how we judge all of life’s experiences.

The peak–end rule states that how we judge an experience, overall, appears to be primarily related to the most extreme moment (the peak) and the last moment (the end) of the experience. However, a new study using pizza discovered that the price we pay for an experience can break the peak–end rule, changing how customers judge their overall satisfaction and enjoyment of an experience.

Who wouldn’t like to be an in experiment that involves eating pizza? Well, 139 customers at an all-you-can-eat luncheon buffet in Binghamton, New York, did just that. The 72 sets of lunch-goers were divided into two groups: those receiving a coupon for an $8 pizza-based buffet and free beverage, and those that were given the same deal at the half-price of $4.

The researchers recorded the customers’ overall satisfaction with the pizza and specifically, the taste, satisfaction and enjoyment of the first, middle and last piece of pizza they ate. By controlling for age, height, weight, gender, beginning and end hunger levels, and pizza slice order effects, as well as performing the experiments on similarly dull and dreary, rainy weather days, statistical analysis gave the peak–end rule a slice of humble pie.

When the price was relatively low, the peak–end rule fits the data beautifully, where both the taste of the last pizza slice and, more pronouncedly, the peak taste, significantly predicted the general taste evaluation of the pizza, as well as overall enjoyment and satisfaction. Specifically, the peak–end rule explained 80% of the variation in overall pizza taste evaluations.

Yet when paying full price, the peak–end rule lost some of its power and explained only 70% of the variation in the data. A new rule took over as the big cheese, explaining a whopping 97% of the results. Paying a higher price for an all-you-can-eat buffet led the customers to evaluate their meal satisfaction not based on the taste of the last slice and the peak taste but based on the taste of the first slice alone.

Researchers suggested that this difference in evaluating customer satisfaction between full price and half-price meals stems from expectation-disconfirmation theory, where prior expectations about the performance of a product/service, as well as the actual experience, determine the eventual evaluations of customer satisfaction.

It seems that when customers have low expectations about a service (due to a low price), the peak-end rule kicks in and the peak and end evaluations are the main defining moments in judging overall satisfaction. Having higher expectations (due to a higher price) may have customers evaluating the overall service based on only the beginning experience.

Ultimately, the peak–end rule is not as general to all experiences as previously thought — context is key!

This has pretty obvious implications for the restaurant industry, and to customer satisfaction for products and services in general. If customers are expected to pay a relatively high price, then evidence-based practice thus far would dictate that they are served the best of the best first and foremost in their customer experience.

On the other hand, if customers are expected to pay a relatively low price, where the peak–end rule more generally applies, making sure that a peak of enjoyment somewhere in the middle is followed by the last taste of the experience ending the service/product with a bang should help boost customer satisfaction.

Extending this research into the non-material realms of day to day, week to week and year to year life experiences may pull out more contextual factors that turn the peak–end rule on its head, and lead to profound insights that could help vastly improve the largest predictors of life satisfaction: mental health and well-being.

Until research progresses, these potentially life changing implications are just pie in the sky. At the very least, for now, we now know how best to serve a few slices of pizza pie!


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Image via El Nariz / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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