In the Holiday Gift Forecast? Brain Freeze.

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006

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

This strange present entering the family lore as 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 is likely to get.

These cheerful holiday 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 the District, 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.

Oddly enough, 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. (This is especially true in little discussed areas such as sex.)

· 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, a 50-something from Silver Spring.

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 now-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."

Dale Proctor, 41, of Arlington, remembers the time six years ago when her boyfriend told her to pack a bag. OMG, she thought, he's taking me to the Caribbean for the weekend.

Not exactly. "It was a trip to King's Dominion. I was horrified. The traffic on 95 for four hours. We even stayed at that crappy hotel nearby."

What was he thinking?

"He wanted to go ride the new roller coaster."

She married him anyway.

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 D.C., 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 for his wife of 37 years.

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 towards 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."

Well, maybe. But then there's the woman who laughs about what her husband always says he wants -- a hot car. She laughs.

Gerald Edwards, 35, of the District, still flinches when he recalls the piece of jewelry he once gave his girlfriend.

"The quality was not what she expected," he says, morosely.

"Not cubic zirconium?" a lunch companion ventures, shuddering.

No, not that bad. It was a "bracelet from Zales" that he got in a mall in Gaithersburg.

What's so bad about that? What was she expecting?

"Three carats."

(She married him anyway.)

That business of people thinking they know you inside and out and becoming impervious to new information is a real problem, says Harriet Tregoning of Adams Morgan. "Old friends remember what you liked when you were 19." Fifteen years ago, Tregoning liked collecting things that were black and white. She's well past that phase, she says, but she's still getting ceramic cows.

What other creatures of her black-and-white phase are still arriving?

"Salt and pepper shakers, banks, candleholders, and coffee cups," she says.

So what kind of gifts does she like to give that reflect the fact -- even the hope -- that people change?

"Little improvement projects," she replies. "If they're going to chain restaurants, you give them a gift certificate to some wonderful place with a great chef and hope they notice the difference. Elevate their sights."

There are times, however, when elevating the sights of someone you've known for decades can take strange turns.

One man who considers himself a committed and outspoken pacifist recalls the Christmas as he approached his 40th birthday in which his father gave him a revolver with adjustable front and rear sights. "You know, for the birthday of the Prince of Peace and all that," he says.

Of course, if you know the person well enough, you can always try for the magnificent recovery. Consider the case of the Fort Washington man who, early in his marriage, had the wit to insist to his wife that she was so svelte and shapely that she could not possibly have reason to interpret his Christmas present as an insult.

What had he given her?

Bathroom scales.

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