Shopping for Person X

THE MORE WE LEARN about our loved ones, the less we know what they want from life — not to mention for the holidays. According to a new study, this is the reason couples give each other such lame gifts. In what won’t come as a surprise to at least half the people having meltdowns in department stores this weekend, researchers have found that the chances of selecting a gift that the recipient actually wants run in inverse proportion with our degree of intimacy with that person.

That explains why it’s easier to find a gift for a co-worker or a neighbor than for the person who uses your toothbrush by mistake. It also explains why so many couples are tempted to just ditch the holiday gift thing altogether and give to charity or splurge on an expensive dinner out — a plan that inevitably comes home to roost months later when someone issues a complaint of the “you never get me anything” variety.

An article in the December issue of the Journal for Consumer Research, snappily titled “Why It Is So Hard to Predict Our Partner’s Product Preferences: The Effect of Target Familiarity on Prediction Accuracy,” explains that we often confuse our own desires with the desires of our partners. Moreover, the study found that we tend to be more dismissive of our partners’ tastes than of the preferences of strangers.

In a series of experiments, marketing scholars in the Netherlands and Belgium showed images of bedroom furniture to couples who had been together for at least six months. Separately, each subject was asked to choose the styles he or she liked best. Then half were asked to predict what their partners would prefer, while the other half was given information about the preferences of a stranger, called “Person X,” and asked to choose styles for them based on those preferences.


As it turned out, members of the second group were much better at guessing what furniture Person X would choose than the first group was at guessing on behalf of their partners. Oops. And unbeknownst to those in the second group, their Persons X were their partners.

All of this suggested to the researchers that the more information you may have in your brain about someone, the less you may be able (or likely) to tease out their likes and dislikes. That may be a result of couples having more important things to talk about than bedroom furniture, but sometimes, the study found, it’s because we impose our own preferences on our partners, something we don’t do to mere strangers.

Is this a surprise? Don’t we all know that shopping for significant others is more about us than them? This explains not only why serious coffee drinkers bestow espresso machines on their one-latte-a-month mates but why we so often buy our partners clothes or jewelry that resemble what they might find if they took the wrong suitcase home from the airport. When it comes to partner gift-giving, we’re either buying something because we want it for ourselves or because we want to be with the kind of person who has such a thing.

Of course, there’s always the option of getting our loved ones something they actually need. But in relationships, such holiday gifts may be warnings that the giver intends to dump the recipient sometime around Jan. 1. It’s through these sorts of transactions that, over the years, things like meat thermometers, cellphone chargers and the latest version of “Quicken” have come into my possession. But even when relationship termination is not imminent, a useful gift seems to contradict the entire purpose of holiday giving. (This is one reason why it’s so satisfying to buy gifts for kids. Not only do they have wish lists as detailed as the federal tax code, there’s never anything they actually need — string beans or a rubella shot, for instance — on that list.)

Shopping for one’s partner gets blown even further off course by the phantom gusts of Valentine’s Day. As with that dreadful holiday, one must at least nod in the direction of romance, and yet standbys like flowers and Mylar balloons don’t cut it at this time of year.

As a result, we take what is at once the most selfish and sanest course of action: We leave our loved one out of the equation and seek merely to please ourselves. Hence the never-to-be-worn cashmere sweaters and the kind of lingerie that gives many women a rash just looking at it. I also suspect this accounts for every bottle of Old Spice ever sold.

So what do to? Judging from the study, our best bet might be to forget our notions about our partner and shop exclusively for Person X, whose taste in bedroom furniture is apparently easier to figure out. Then again, successful relationships are all about denial. Person X might be entitled to his or her opinions. But real love means knowing how to ignore them.