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Writing Lessons From Your Colonoscopy

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Many writers and readers alike say that the most important part of a story is the ending. When asked why, they say things like “an ending allows you to form a complete opinion about the work as a whole,” or “the ending is the payoff of what the writer builds during the story.”

These are probably part of the answer, but if the last 30 years of experimental psychology have taught us anything, it’s that we are surprisingly ignorant of why we form beliefs and opinions. A series of experiments by psychologist Daniel Kahneman–one of my personal heroes–and his colleagues Donald A. Redelmeier and Joel Katz suggest a simpler reason why endings are so important, and why as a writer it’s more vital for you to deliver a satisfying ending than almost any other factor.

It starts with a group of men. More specifically, their colons.

The colonoscopy procedure is about as much fun as it sounds. It is painful, intrusive, and embarrassing enough that many people skip the procedure as often as possible even when it’s vital to their long-term health. In their experiment, Kahneman et al. took a group of men who were coming in for a medically needed colonoscopy and divided them into two groups.Both groups were given the procedure and asked to rate their pain and discomfort during the process, and then once again immediately after it was finished.

The first group, the control group, was given the colonoscopy as normal. The second group, the experimental group, was given the colonoscopy as normal, but then the apparatus was left in for a short period after the actual procedure was done. They did not know that this extra period wasn’t part of the procedure, but they did know that the last few minutes of their procedure was considerably less painful than the bulk of it.

During the procedure, the experimental group experienced more total discomfort than the control group, because they had a full-length full-discomfort procedure followed an extra period of reduced discomfort that was still much less fun than less irritations like, for example, getting a root canal. However, when asked to rate the overall unpleasantness of the experience, the experimental group rated it as significantly less bad than the control group. Even though they experienced more total pain, the reduced pain at the end made the entire procedure seem less bad. Not only that, the people in the experimental group wer more likely to come back for a repeat procedure.

In other words, when they thought back on the experience, they mostly remembered the ending. The last thing that happened to them had a higher impact on their impression of the experience than the much longer period that preceded it. Even though their total discomfort was higher. It didn’t matter. The taste it left in their mouth, to use a metaphor that we should all agree not to think about too much in this context, was based on the ending.

These findings have been reproduced in other experiments under different conditions. Kahneman and Redelmeier, their sadistic lust for psychological insight not sated by even the most unpleasant medically necessary procedures, went on to blast people’s ears with unpleasant noises and submerge their hands in freezing water. In both cases, subjects rated the overall experience as less unpleasant as long as it ended more gently, even when the gentle-ending condition was twice as long. When asked which condition they wanted to repeat,the overwhelming majority of subjects chose to repeat the double-length torture period over the shorter one, as long as the long one had a milder finish.

This data stacks up with a great deal of other data from other directions to tell a specific story about the human mind: we massively overvalue whatever happens last in an experience. A fantastic vacation with a crappy final day will be remembered less fondly than a mediocre vacation that went out with a bang, according to survey data. A great dessert will save an otherwise mediocre restaurant meal.

So it may be, then, that the major contributing factor for why endings are so important in stories is simply that they happen last. No matter how carefully you craft the beginning and middle of your story, it just won’t have the same lasting psychological impact as those last few scenes. Another implication here, and I admit I am speculating, is that it might matter less than you think how well the ending ties everything together. It might be more important that the ending is enjoyable for its own sake.

Someone clever writer is probably going to have to torment some hapless readers to find out.



The Procrastination Trigger

STOP procrastination

Everyone thinks they are a procrastinator, because everyone sometimes puts things off until later. If you get into a conversation with someone about procrastination, nearly everyone will say “oh, yeah, I’m a terrible procrastinator!” Even the guy who started his own business, works 80 hours a week, has 3 kids, and still manages to go mountain climbing every weekend and run a website that rates the most hilarious beer-bottle logos from around the world.

“Really?” I always want to ask this person, whose name may or may not be Steve. “Have you ever put an important task or phone call off five or six times a day, for an entire week, to the point that every moment you aren’t distracting yourself with video games or jello shots you so stressed about it you can’t focus on anything else? Have you ever put off a minor and fairly easy task for an entire year, even though not doing it had a serious negative effect on your life?”

It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t rational. But to the True Procrastinator, those of us who could put things off for England, it doesn’t matter. We can’t explain it or justify it any more than those people who are always late to things for absolutely no good reason. Man, I hate those people. One of these days I am going to write a big long rant about how much their lateness inconveniences the rest of us and send it to them. But not today. Definitely not today.

To the True Procrastinator, procrastination is nearly an end in an of itself. The act of putting something off isn’t passive. There is a moment where you decide not to do something, and it floods you with the same sort of rush as a smoker who takes that first drag after three hours stuck in an elevator with an old nun wearing a respirator.

Just the other day I noticed a component of my own compulsive procrastination that I never noticed before. I call it the Procrastination Trigger. The best way to explain it is by example.

For the last year I’ve been in regular email correspondence with my oldest friend. We’ve known each other since 9th grade, and like most length friendships we’ve fallen in and out of regular communication over the years. A year ago he had a baby–or maybe it was his wife, I’m not clear on the details–and since we don’t see each other as much as we like, we instead send each other long and heart-felt emails about stresses and difficulties and everything else on earth.

Whenever he sends me one of these emails I want to respond right away. But much of the time I don’t. Sometimes I put it off for weeks for absolutely no reason. During those weeks, I sit down to respond every single day. But instead I check Facebook. Or watch an episode of Adventure Time. Or fiddle with settings on my phone for 20 utterly wasted minutes. Sometimes he sends yet another email before I get around to responding. When I do respond, I always start with “Sorry it took so long to respond!” Even though I know he doesn’t mind. He sometimes takes a long time to respond, too.

Yesterday he sent me an email. My previous email had been one of those late responses with the obligatory apology. His reply included the following phrase:

I don’t think anything of it if it you don’t reply, maybe because I explicitly set out in the charter that I was “using” you as a more lightweight form of journaling.

I haven’t replied to his email. Not because I haven’t wanted to, but because of that phrase. I sit down to reply, and my brain screams at me. “What are you doing, you idiot! He gave you an out!”

I have no reason to procrastinate, but I have an excuse. I have an opportunity to put something off and get away with it, guilt free! How can I resist? It’s like walking past a quarter on the street and not picking it up. Sure, an extra quarter will make no difference in my life. But I will feel like an idiot for not taking advantage of the opportunity.

That is the Procrastination Trigger. When life gives the True Procrastinator the chance to procrastinate without consequences, it is much, much more difficult ignore the urge and just do the task. It’s the same mechanism as when you have a bill to pay, but you don’t pay it because there are other bills that are due sooner, which makes it feel silly to pay the first bill when really it shouldn’t be at the top of the priority list. It’s a form of justification that is subtle, powerful, and dangerous, because it makes you put off tasks you might otherwise complete right away.

But this isn’t entirely pessimistic. If you know about the Procrastination Trigger it weakens its effect on you. If you admit that you are under its thrall, if you keep a constant eye out for it, it is easier to resist. It isn’t effortless. It will never be effortless. But there is power in admitting that you put things off not because you have a good reason, but because you get psychological satisfaction from the practice of procrastination.

If you are a True Procrastinator, the Procrastination Trigger might be an enemy that lives inside your brain. An enemy that you might not have realized existed. The first step in warfare is to Know Your Enemy. I’m not sure who said that—Gandhi, maybe—but it’s true. It will take a lot more than just knowledge to overcome the Procrastination Trigger.

But it’s a start.