Just in time for the holidays I saw this article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times (strangely, on the op-ed page): Shopping for Person X. "A study proves it: People are worse at buying gifts for their partners than strangers." They are referring to this article from the Journal of Consumer Research: Why It Is So Hard to Predict Our Partner’s Product Preferences: The Effect of Target Familiarity on Prediction Accuracy. According to the Times:
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.
So if you’re having trouble coming up with that perfect gift for your Significant Other, maybe the secret is to forget how much you know about them. Try thinking of them as a stranger, and consider their likes and dislikes in abstract terms. Choose a gift on that basis and you are more likely to come up with something that they will really like, rather than something that your image of them would like.