Intimate Strangers

Talking Heads, the fascinating “new wave” band that began in the late 70s, made its biggest mark on pop culture with the hit, “Once in a Lifetime” — thanks in part to MTV’s embrace of the surreal video, but also because of the song’s highly resonant lyrics, especially:

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself; Well…How did I get here?


You may ask yourself
How do I work this?
You may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
You may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
You may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!

That song ran through my mind when reading Meghan Daum’s column in this morning’s LA Times.  She riffs on a new study that purports to show how “the more we know about our loved ones, the less we know what they want from life,” which explains why “couples give each other such lame gifts.”  The study itself is fascinating:

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.

Technology, it seems to me, might have the answer.  In my extended family, we’re all instructed by my mother to post what we want for Christmas on our Amazon “Wish Lists.”  It’s the main reason I think she has a computer.

My wife and I force our son to sit down and write up his Christmas list at least a month before the holiday.  My wife is the hardest to pin down, so when she tells me something she wants, I make a point of memorizing it or writing it down.  Left to my own devices, I’d just screw it up.

P.S. In creating a link for “Once in A Lifetime,” I learned from Wikipedia that the songwriters, David Byrne and Eno, took the lyrics from a sermon they heard on the radio.


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