Understanding the Brain’s Bias Towards ‘Happy Endings’

Illustration of the brain with emphasis on areas activated by 'Happy Endings' in decision-making processes.

In the realm of sports, a team might underperform throughout a game yet still manage to score in the final minutes, leading to a perceived ‘Happy Ending’. But beyond the pitch, this tendency for our brains to favor a positive conclusion poses significant risks in decision-making.

Read more: Understanding the Brain’s Bias Towards ‘Happy Endings’

The Allure of Happy Endings:

By nature, humans are predisposed to prefer ‘happy endings’. Positive conclusions to experiences don’t necessarily mean they were overall beneficial, just as negative endings don’t render entire experiences negative. Consider poker: one might find greater joy in winning twice consecutively than in clinching the last hand.

The Brain and Decisions:

Renowned researchers, Martin D. Vestergaard and Wolfram Schultz, delved into this phenomenon. Their study, “Retrospective Valuation of Experienced Outcome Encoded in Distinct Reward Representations in the Anterior Insula and Amygdala”, revealed two distinct brain areas that activate and ‘compete’ when basing decisions on past experiences. The brain might overvalue experiences ending on a high note and undervalue those ending poorly – even if they hold equivalent value.

The ‘Banker’s Fallacy’:

Linking closely to this is the ‘Banker’s Fallacy’. It’s the dangerous belief that trends will perpetually improve, causing short-term growth to detrimentally impact long-term outcomes. Focusing on ‘happy endings’ often maximizes our final impressions, overshadowing our overall enjoyment.

Real-World Application – Youth Sports Coaching:

Many youth coaches profess that player development trumps winning. But does reality reflect this? Does an unconscious bias exist to play better players more frequently to secure victories and those coveted ‘happy endings’?

A Deeper Dive into the Brain:

Vestergaard and Wolfram extended their investigation using a virtual gambling experiment with 27 participants. The results identified the amygdala, termed the primitive brain, as crucially activated during the experiment. Effective decision-makers opted for the highest total money pots, showing high amygdala activation. Those biased towards ‘happy endings’ displayed heightened activity in the anterior insula, associated with emotion and motivation.

To make sound decisions, one must override any negative impressions from experiences, such as an unfavorable ending. This suppression ability stems from our executive system or prefrontal cortex.


As lead researcher Martin Vestergaard advises, “Sometimes it’s worth taking the time to stop and think. Taking a more analytical approach to complement your intuitive judgment can help ensure you’re making a rational decision.” Applying this wisdom can help prevent hasty emotional choices. While a ‘happy ending’ might be exhilarating in football, as showcased in this captivating clip: it’s essential to scrutinize its value in broader contexts.


Vestergaard & Schultz: ‘Retrospective valuation of experienced outcome encoded in distinct reward representations in the anterior insula and amygdala.‘ Journal of Neuroscience, October 2020. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2130-19.2020.  

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