Dec. 8, 2006 -- Here's how to buy your loved ones gifts they'll really like: Pretend they're strangers.
Why? We're better at guessing what strangers like than divining what our loved ones desire, find marketing experts Davy P.K. Lerouge, PhD, of Tilburg University, Netherlands; and Luk Warlop, PhD, of Catholic University, Leuven, Belgium.
"Familiarity with another consumer is not particularly helpful when predicting the others' product attitudes," Lerouge and Warlop say.
The find that even when our loved ones tell us what they like, we think we know better.
The findings appear in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.
Strange Familiars, Familiar Strangers
Lerouge and Warlop set up a series of experiments in which couples, who had been together more than two years on average, tried to predict which kinds of bedroom furniture the other would like.
In the experiments, half the couples knew they were trying to predict their partner's preferences. The other half tried to predict the preferences of someone they were told was a stranger, but who was, in fact, their partner.
People tended to be better at predicting another person's preferences when they thought that person was a stranger.
This, the researchers suggest, is because when predicting what a stranger would like, we are forced to "rely on general and stereotypical information about the stranger, which can be quite diagnostic."
But when predicting what our loved ones like, we "ignore this valid information" and rely on more intimate information "that is often found to be invalid or irrelevant when predicting product attitudes," Lerouge and Warlop report.
Listening, Not Hearing
In other experiments, the researchers let the predictors learn the actual preference of their partner after every prediction -- and even gave them tests to see if they were listening.
Their finding: We do, indeed, listen to our partners when they tell us what they like. But, unless they like the same things we do -- which is not always the case -- we still can't predict what they would like.
That, Lerouge and Warlop say, is because we've stored up a tremendous amount of knowledge about our loved ones. When predicting what they would like, we rely on this information.
We either discount more product-specific information, or interpret that information in terms of our "pre-stored beliefs and expectations," the researchers say.
The only time we are good at guessing what our partners like is when they like the same things we do.
In that case, the researchers suggest, "predictors relied heavily on their own attitudes to predict those of their partner and did not retrieve a lot of information beyond their own attitudes."