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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 22, 2006

Listen up when you buy gifts for lovers

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post

There was the time she gave her husband a pair of ceramic sheep.

Which brings us to The First Law of Holiday Giving: Never select a gift for your beloved just because you think you'd like to have it yourself.

To this day, she defends the sheep as a really swell gift: "I fell in love with them immediately. We aspired to something great. They were from Italy and looked like something made for Louis XIV. I guess it was my Marie Antoinette alter ego kicking in. They said 'elegance.' They didn't say 'white trash.' So I shelled out the $200 for them."

She still maintains she was doing it as much for her flame as for herself.

"Sort of."

Recent research, however, shows that she has less to be defensive about than she could guess:

  • Almost half of all lovers are worse at predicting their partner's heart's desire than a stranger who simply uses average gender-specific preferences.

  • In addition, the more you know about your inamorata, the worse your success rate may be.

    These tidings are brought to you by "Why It Is So Hard to Predict Our Partner's Product Preferences: The Effect of Target Familiarity on Prediction Accuracy," in the December issue of the scholarly Journal of Consumer Research, published by the University of Chicago Press.

    Meredith Melcher, 26, of Washington, talks about the time her father gave her mother ski goggles for Christmas. Her mother was six months pregnant. She didn't ski even when she wasn't pregnant. They fit him much better than her. They were really nice ski goggles, though, Melcher says.

    Davy Lerouge is not surprised. The assistant professor of marketing at Tilburg University in the Netherlands is the co-author of the "So Hard" monograph that comes with 13 charts, a raft of equations and 28 references.

    The situation, he says, is basically this:

  • Paramours frequently overestimate the similarities between their preferences and those of their partners.

  • An even bigger problem, though, his research shows, is that the more you know about the other person, the less weight you put on fresh information. Why pay attention to hints? Or even flat-out Christmas lists? Don't you know everything there is to know about this person?

    Not so much, reports Debbie Linni, of Silver Spring, Md.

    How about a hockey puck for Christmas? That's what she once got from a boyfriend. She was supposed to be impressed because the puck had been used by the New Haven Nighthawks, the defunct farm team. But somehow, that's not why she remembers it.

    "Women don't want to have to tell what they want," Linni says. They want their lover to peer into their soul and respond with deep empathy.

    But you have to be clear and explicit, she has learned, "Otherwise, you get a hockey puck."

    When you start collecting tales of mind-crushing holiday gift insensitivity, it's striking how often the story ends with "I married him anyway" or "We've been married now for 37 years."

    George Clark, 59, of Washington, will never live down the Christmas vacuum cleaner. "It still gets mentioned," he says, ruefully. But he defends himself. "She said she wanted one." She even knew which make and model.

    The problem, he claims, was his wife made this announcement in December. If she had just waited until January, all would have been well. "It shouldn't have gone under the Christmas tree," he acknowledges.

    Does this mean he's learned his lesson? "Well, there was the laser printer," he says, wincing again.

    From now on, he vows, he's sticking to jewelry.

    Surprisingly, "We did not observe any gender differences" between the bad gift-guessers, Lerouge reports in an e-mail. Yet men overwhelmingly seem to be the goats of wretched Christmas present stories. What's up with that?

    "It is believed in the literature that women are more sensitive toward their partner's product attitudes, and they also provide their partner with more valid feedback," says Lerouge. The problem is, "men receive more and better feedback but don't use it. Women are more sensitive to information about the partner but don't receive it."