Determinants of quality, specificity, and stability of emotional episodic memories in a fine-dining context

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For theoretical and practical reasons, it is of great interest to understand how accurate and persistent episodic memories of enjoyable experiences are formed and maintained, for example, in the context of gastronomy and other instances of experience design. Here, we investigated factors that might affect the quality (a measure of coherence) of immediate and long-term emotional episodic memories of individual dishes of a long and complex dinner in a fine-dining restaurant. We also assessed long-term recognition memory for pictures of the dishes. Intra-class correlations revealed good immediate emotional episodic memory, which remained stable over three months. Contributing factors to these kinds of memory were assessed with path modelling. The quality of emotional episodic memory was enhanced by the hedonic intensity of the most valued dishes during the meal and was impaired with the hedonic intensity of the least valued dishes. Enjoying the final dish positively affects emotional memory after the experience. Interestingly, when diners reported to have been distracted from the meal, presumably by communicating with their meal companions about the food, it had a positive effect on the long-term emotional episodic memory. Personality traits of the diners had no substantial impact on either type of memory. Alcohol intake during the meal modestly affected recognition memory but – interestingly – had no statistically significant effect on emotional episodic memory. Altogether, this study provides novel information about the main determinants of the precision and temporal stability of emotional episodic memory and nonemotional recognition memory for a meal. These findings contribute to the psychological foundations of designing memorable experiences in gastronomy and other areas. Implications for gastronomy Knowing what factors may determine whether a gastronomic experience would be memorable to diners is the holy grail of any chef. The design of a gastronomic experience should provide intense emotional moments to the diners aiming to increase the quality of emotional memory of those moments. Different factors contribute to this stability, for instance, how the diner interacts with the food and the food itself. In this regard, serving in a dining course very tasty and less delicious dishes thereafter can enhance the memorability of the former, but not so much of the latter, as it may be disturbing for the diner. Critically, enjoying the final dish positively affects emotional memory after the experience. In addition, most gastronomic events are shared with companions. Far from being a distracting element, social relationships in a table seem to increase the memorability of the experience, as communication deeply elaborates and reinforces memory traces. In the reinforcement of emotional memories for foods, alcohol has a negligible effect. Although our findings have been obtained in a fine-dining context, the implications of our current findings might be generalizable to other, more standard contexts. The critical point is to focus on having positive specific episodes rather than having a positive global valuation. All these outcomes would converge to increase the probability of repeating the gastronomic experience, regardless of whether it is a high-level restaurant or a standard one.
CRUE-CSIC (Acuerdos Transformativos 2022)