Knowing that something will occur for the last time really is accepted with more pleasure and affection, researchers from the University of Michigan reported in Psychological Science. For example, that last kiss before the soldier goes off to war really does make us regard that person with more affection and pleasure than the day before. A long and painful experience that ends nicely tends to be rated more positively than a short-sharp painful one that do not end pleasantly, the authors added.

Psychologist Ed O’Brien and colleague Phoebe C. Ellsworth said:

“Endings affect us in lots of ways, and one is this
‘positivity effect,'”

The study also found that “last-is-best” has a positive effect on life, even in trivial everyday events. The event does not even need to be really the last.

O’Brien said:

“When you simply tell people something is the last, they may like
that thing more.”

Romeo and Juliet, each kiss as if it were the last one (painting by Sir Frank Dicksee)

The researchers recruited 52 volunteers, all of them students at the University of Michigan. They were all told they were to take part in a taste study using Hershey’s Kisses which had been prepared with ingredients collected locally.

The participants had to take five chocolates from a pocket that was hidden inside a bag. The chocolates were almond, caramel, crème, dark and milk. Each one was tasted and rated from 0 to 10, with ten being the tastiest and most enjoyable.

The participants were randomized into two group:

  • The last one group – before each chocolate, they were told “Here is the next one”. However, just before the fifth one, they were told “This is the last one”.
  • The next one group – before each chocolate, they were told “Here is the next one” in every case. No mention was made of “the last one” ever.

The chocolates were rated for overall enjoyable flavor at the end of each experiment.

The researchers found that:

  • The fifth chocolate was rated higher when participants were told it was their last, compared to the fifth chocolate with no mention of the last.
  • The fifth chocolate in “the last one group” was the favorite one 64% of the time – regardless of flavor.
  • In “the next one group”, the fifth chocolate was the favorite one 22% of the time, which is close enough to a 1 in 5 chance.

O’Brien said:

“It’s something motivational. You think: ‘I might as well reap the benefits of this experience even though it’s going to end,’ or ‘I want to get something good out of this while I still can.’

Many experiences have happy endings – from the movies and shows we watch to dessert at the end of a meal – and so people may have a general expectation that things end well, which could bleed over into these insignificant or unrelated judgments.”

The authors say that their “little chocolate test” might have some interesting and worrying implications. When marking exams, the examiner may award higher marks to the last one being graded, even if it does not really merit highest marks. In job interviews, the interviewers may slant towards the last person they saw on their shortlist.

O’Brian emphasized that endings can bring other, intense non-positive feelings as well, such as a stronger sense of loss or bitterness. However, even with a bittersweet chocolate, if it is the last one, it will probably taste sweet.

What effect might knowledge of these findings have on making Valentine’s Day more memorable and pleasurable? Perhaps explaining that the chocolate gift is the last of their kind to go on sale, or during an evening meal express wonder at whether this moment might be so unique it may never occur again in quite the same way.

Written by Christian Nordqvist