Why my mom didn't buy me a slot car track for Christmas in 1978, even though I told her that's what I wanted

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifI'm not bitter about this, honest I'm not, but it does often seem that people who know you very well end up buying really lousy gifts. What I really want to find out is this: why do they do that? It turns out, market researchers want to know, too. How can they have a prayer of selling people things they don't want when people can't even convince their loved ones to buy them things they do want?

Davy Lerouge and Luk Warlop have designed a clever study to examine this very issue. They wanted to know whether couples who've been together for at least six months were any better at predicting each other's preferences than they were predicting preferences for strangers. They decided to study furniture preferences, because it's something couples generally have to agree on together. Also, since people don't buy furniture very often, most couples probably wouldn't have a specific purchase to use as a reference, and instead would be relying on general knowledge of each others' preferences.

Lerouge and Warlop recruited 35 couples to participate in the study. Each partner was placed in a separate cubicle for the duration of the study, and had no contact with his or her mate. They then were shown pictures of 30 different sets of bedroom furniture and asked to indicate their impression of it (positive or negative). The next part was the key to the study:

Each partner was shown 30 new furniture sets -- the sets the other partner had already rated. In each case, they were asked to predict how another person would feel about the furniture. Half the participants were told they were predicting their own partner's preference, and the other half were led to believe they were choosing for a stranger. In fact, all participants were predicting their own partner's preferences. After each prediction, the partner's actual preference was revealed, so as the study progressed, presumably each participant would better understand his or her partner's preference, and gradually make better predictions. Here are the results:


Overall, participants were better at predicting their partners' tastes when they believed they were predicting the tastes of a stranger. When they knew they were predicting their own partners' tastes, the accuracy of predictions depended on how similar their own tastes were to that of their partners.

Here's the key finding: When partners' tastes were different from their own, then they were better at predicting each others' tastes if they believed they were predicting the tastes of a stranger. So, if your partner has different tastes from you, then even if you learn exactly what their tastes are, that information doesn't help you make predictions about their tastes. Instead, you substitute your own tastes.

When you know someone well, it appears, you begin to assume they have the same tastes as you do. If you really do have the same tastes, this works out fine, but if your tastes are different, then you can't count on your partner to figure that out -- even if you tell them. Two subsequent experiments, with even more furniture photos and more opportunity to learn partners' preferences, confirmed these results.

Lerouge, D., & Warlop, L. (2006). Why is it so hard to predict our partner's product preferences: The effect of target familiarity on prediction accuracy. Journal of Consumer Research, 33, 393-402.

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This is certainly something for guys to consider when buying lingerie for the wife or girlfriend. :D

Seriously, though, were there any differences between the sexes? I would think women would do better than men.

By David Group (not verified) on 15 Dec 2006 #permalink

I agree, it seems to me that gender would be a factor, but the study doesn't report any gender differences -- I'd have to assume this is because there weren't any.

they decided to study items that would be long-term, rare purchases. There's a good chance that wishful thinking plays a part, like "Well, if we had to buy a new sofa, I *hope* we could get one I kind of like, so I'll say he'd like this..."

A study on predictions of what food items partners like would probably show better results. That is, you'd buy food anyway, and if they eat it and you don't have to, it's not a problem-- so you are honest with yourself about what they want.

I just think the study may have been poorly designed.

By Samantha Vimes (not verified) on 15 Dec 2006 #permalink

I guess I'm a stereotypical male. My wife will pick something I like for the simple reason that I don't care much about furniture style. Having said that however, I must admit that my love of soft leather furniture is certainly evident in our home.

After over 15 years of marriage, I can figure out what my wife WON'T like about 90% of the time. Figuring out what exactly she will like is a tougher proposition.

By Wayne Martin (not verified) on 15 Dec 2006 #permalink

This does at least explain why small children think their Mommys want a giant fiber-optic angel that plays "Joy to the World" with synchronized color for Christmas.

The study has nothing to do with "gifts". Furniture is something that's shared for couples living together. I have never ever known anyone to give their significant other furniture as a gift. Ofcourse there's bias in furniture. It's something all your friends and family will see as a reflection on BOTH of your when they come over.

The study would have been more accurate if it focused on other types of products that aren't percieved as shared.

By Brian Lee (not verified) on 16 Dec 2006 #permalink

I agree with the comment that furniture is not the same as buying gifts but the research does explain why my husband - who used to be wonderful at buying me gifts (an electric drill) has become progressively worse over the years (a sheet for the bed) :-0

By Bernadette Berry (not verified) on 18 Dec 2006 #permalink

Bernadette and Brian:

Your points are well-taken. Still, I think the fact that many individuals perform worse at predicting their partner's tastes when they are given feedback indicating which furniture they prefer suggests a fundamental problem in predicting the tastes of loved ones.

Brian, your particular point that furniture reflects the taste of both partners makes some sense, but I would like to point out that we're talking about bedroom furniture, which usually isn't public.

It is fun to see our paper picked up here.
About the gender differences: We looked for the intuitive difference (girls do this much better), but no. Nothing there.


I don't know what the culture is like in all of Europe, but in North America and Asia; when you have a house (or apartment) warming party (which is common for couples) you typically give people a tour of the whole house.

In fact I do remember some friends of ours, a European couple (British / French), recently giving us a tour of their house when we visited them in LA.

I still stand by my opinion (which could be right or wrong) that the study would have been far more accurate if it used a different class of merchandise as the control (like jewelry or electronics).

By Brian Lee (not verified) on 19 Dec 2006 #permalink

Interesting research! My husband & I tend to run gift ideas by each other because we've learned that we're not good at choosing on our own.

About the study accuracy comments:

If the couples were truly purchasing the furniture, if they are the types to take visitors on a tour of their house, and if they are high self-monitors, then the criticism may be valid. However, participants know that they are participating in research. They were sitting in cubicles trying to match their partners' (or strangers') preferences. The participants didn't have to live with the purchases---this was known upfront---so conscious concern for their own preferences shouldn't have played a role in their ratings.

With the above stated, I think it would be interesting to attempt to replicate the study findings, using different merchandise.

I wonder if you'd see a difference in the
results if you asked two questions:

"What would your partner like better",
"What is your partner most likely to choose"?

In the latter case, feeding your own
preferences into the results may well
indicate a more or less accurate
assesment of how much your S.O.s
understanding of YOUR preferences
influences his/her buying.