The Importance of Morally Satisfying Endings: Cognitive Influences on Storytelling in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

AbstractPeak End Rule (Kahneman, 1993) suggests peak and end moments of an event disproportionately affect memory and perception of experience. We apply PER to reading fiction. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012) is an ideal case study: commercially popular but with a distinctly amoral ending. We hypothesize that humans expect moral payoffs in narrative fiction, and that failure to meet these expectations manifests as disappointment and dislike. We reference models in evolutionary psychology explaining human altruism, and models in cognitive science explaining patterns in memory and assessment. We conduct a corpus analysis of 40,000 Amazon reviews of Gone Girl, comparing them to reviews of similarly popular novels. Reader sentiments, both overall and sentence-by-sentence, are more positive for Gone Girl. But this effect reverses for reviews mentioning “end,” with a similar finding for sentences mentioning “end.” These findings support our hypothesis that lack of moral endings shape reader perceptions of a novel.

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