Friday, April 01, 2005

Two Theories of Dinner Parties

I am having a dinner party this evening, and one of the couples who are coming will be particularly hard to impress. They both work in the wine industry, and they are used to eating fancy food in fine restaurants—sea urchin fritters and foie-gras-stuffed quail—cooking that I cannot hope to rival. Since they are both charming and well-mannered people, no doubt they’ll say they like everything, but will they really? I intend to apply a simple psychological principle to ensure that they do.

The "peak-end rule" says that how positively you remember something is dictated by a) The peak moment of the experience and b) The end of the experience. Take the loud noise experiment: One group had to listen to a piercing loud noise for eight seconds. The second group listened to the same noise for eight seconds, and then a slightly quieter noise for eight seconds. This latter group rated their experience more positively—even though they had to listen to an unpleasant noise for longer. Another experiment often cited involves subjects receiving a colonoscopy, but since I am of very delicate sensibilities, I will refrain from giving the details.

My dinner party, of course, will not resemble a colonoscopy, but the same principle can be applied. According to the rule, instead of having a consistently good quality of food and conversation, you should aim to have a magnificent high point and finale. You are thus better off serving boxed macaroni and cheese followed by a flaming, brandy-doused pyramid of profiteroles than, say, a pleasant main course and dessert. And instead of being moderately witty throughout the evening, you should aim to tell a single brilliant anecdote.

Of course, your guests might enjoy a consistently pleasant evening more than a mediocre evening with a high peak and end point. However, they will remember the latter as being better. One could debate for hours whether a lovely experience or a lovely memory is more valuable. But it is definitely in your interest for your guests to have the lovely memory—that way, they will be sure to write you a thank you note.

On the other hand, if you want to ensure that your guests enjoy themselves at the time, regardless of how they look back on it, you should encourage them to smoke pot. That way, they will declare everything you make sublime. The next day, of course, they will not be able to remember much about it.


Post a Comment

<< Home