Why endings matter [spoiler-free Game of Thrones references]

It probably has not escaped your notice that the Game of Thrones TV series finished this week. If you use social media at all, I suspect you also saw some anguished squawks about how awful the ending was. How the incompetent writers screwed it all up. Maybe you even signed the petition, along with 1.5 million others, to have the last series remade with a different conclusion.

Personally I thought it wasn't a bad outcome, but I seem to be in the minority. Either way, why does this have such significance?

I read a counterargument a few days ago: You've had 70 hours of enjoyment already – it's in the bank. You enjoyed episode 1, 2, 3, …and you can't go back and "unenjoy" them now. One bad hour at the end can't rewind the clock and eliminate the last 8 years of pleasure?

Yet this feels wrong. The ending can ruin the beginning. Why should this be?

A model from cognitive economics may have the answer. The theory of "cognitive goods" says that watching TV, or reading books, is not a one-off consumption experience. It's not like having a massage or eating dinner – something that you enjoy it while it lasts, that might have some short-term after-effects, but is basically over when it's over.

Instead, watching TV is more like building a house. While watching, you are constructing a world inside your head. You learn about the characters and create representations of them in your mind. You watch their behaviours, infer personality traits and record them in a consistent, structured mental model that tells you how they interact and relate to each other. That model stays with you. It sits in your head, occupying space and attention, and you can revisit it regularly to inspect it, or wander through and enjoy it.

You can use this model to try out hypotheses: what might happen next? What if Jaime goes back to Casterly Rock? What if Dany doesn't go north to Winterfell? What if so-and-so isn't dead after all, or such-and-such was evil (or good) all along?

You can play out in your head an imaginary version of Arya's adventures, or what Tyrion might do and say next. Half the fun of watching an episode is the continuing speculation about how it will turn out, making up theories and being proven right or wrong.

In economic terms, you have invested in an asset – albeit one that only exists inside your head. And it generates an ongoing stream of consumption benefits, every time you think about it, imagine this fictional world and feel the emotions, excitement and anticipation that it creates.

In psychological terms, it sits in what I call "System 3", your mental capability for imagination and mental simulation. Your mind contains a map of all the objects in Westeros and their relationships to each other, and you can use it to make predictions or inferences about them. The act of running these simulations generates synthetic reward – reward that is self-generated instead of coming from the material world outside your body.

And the nature of this mental construction tells us why the ending matters. The house you have built in your mind is waiting for its capstone, its roof, its front door. If the final touches are badly done, the whole house suddenly looks wrong. You won't enjoy wandering through it any more. The 70 hours you have invested in building this castle really could be wasted.

If you really did build a house you might very well enjoy the process. There could be a satisfaction in putting one stone on top of the next, and picking out the window frames, and seeing it rise, floor by floor and room by room, out of nothing. But, unless you are a monk building a sand mandala, you are not just constructing the house for the pleasure of creation. You also want to end up getting a house out of it.

Until the house is finished, its structure is not secure. If the keystone is wrongly placed, the whole thing can fall down – or become an inconsistent, badly founded, broken ruin of a building. It will no longer be fun to walk around this imperfect world, because you no longer trust it to make sense. It doesn't provide pleasure any more because the satisfying logical chains of cause-and-effect have been broken. Causality and a consistent set of logical implications, or at least something close enough to logic that you can persuade yourself to believe in, are a requirement for your cognitive asset to generate reliable mental reward.

A lot of our activities, especially our interactions with media, or information, or in our relationships with people, are about creating something inside our heads that lasts beyond the interaction itself. Have you had a relationship that you enjoyed in the moment, but was ruined when you found out the person had been lying to you? Your pleasure was corrupted even after you'd finishing having it. It's the same phenomenon.

Every experience you have has two dimensions: the feelings you have at the time, and what you teach yourself as you interpret them. When you create a mental model of a world – whether it's Westeros or Earth – you own something valuable. Anyone else, whether the writers of Game of Thrones, or your cheating boyfriend, messes with its foundations at their peril.


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