Why Everyone Looks Back At College Too Fondly

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When undergraduates’ college careers come to a close, universities step up their game. In pursuit of the perfect commencement ceremony, landscapers work extra hours, an important person arrives to address the graduates and make them feel special, and deans and professors prepare warm speeches about the college experience. 

Senior class presidents also get into the game, promising that the class will go out on a high note, while the alumni association begins wooing the graduates with social events. 

As institutions that rely on fundraising, it makes sense for universities to take advantage of graduates’ last weeks on campus to make them grandiose, fun, and memorable. And it’s understandable that graduates themselves want to make the most of their last days on campus.

But when graduates look back and take stock of their college careers, surely even the nicest commencement ceremony and final weeks will not keep them from factoring in the all-nighters, awkward social encounters, and academic setbacks as well?

Not necessarily. Because when people recall an experience, they tend to give far more weight to the finale than the rest of the experience.

This, at least, is the assertion of famed psychologist Daniel Kahneman. It is backed up by a number of experiments in which research subjects experience something unpleasant like loud noises, holding their hands in frigid water, or undergoing a painful medical procedure.

The participants undergo the unpleasant experience twice. The first time they experience a significant amount of discomfort or pain. The second time they experience an identical amount of discomfort or pain, followed by an additional period of minor pain or unpleasantness. 

Although the first experience was objectively less unpleasant, subjects overwhelming reported the second as less painful and, when forced to undergo one of the experiences again, chose the second option.

Kahneman posits that when we recall events or experiences, we remember them as a story. And in stories, endings are very important. So recollections are overwhelmingly colored by how they end.

All the ups, downs, and diverse experiences of 4 (ish) years of college are too much for us to remember and too much to fit into our story of how college went. Not every college experience ends positively, and a great commencement ceremony won’t be able to make up for an overwhelmingly negative four years. On average, though, the conspiracy between students and administrators to end college on a high note and remember it fondly succeeds in framing how people recall the entire experience.

Our recollection of college is like a Hollywood adaptation - condensed and simplified, with a happy ending thrown in.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. It applies to graduates of every school but his own. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.

H/t to Ezekiel J. Emanuel for pointing out fun applications of this study.