The psychology of giving great gifts: An expert shares science-backed hacks for making your holiday presents memorable even if you can’t see your loved ones this year

Moran Cerf, 42, is a professor of neuroscience and business at Kellogg School of Management and Northwestern University and is the Alfred P. Sloan professor at the American Film Institute.
Every week, he receives questions about the brain, psychology, business, and behavior via email from people who attend his talks; below are his answers to two recent questions.
In today’s column, he covers how to use neuroscience to give holiday gifts that loved ones will find memorable, and how to buy for the person who has everything.
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Q: This year for Christmas, we’re not to be there in person for the gift-giving, so I’m wondering: Is there any advice on how to make the people — mostly kids, but not only — who receive the gift associate it with me? (Sorry about the vanity, but I hate that my nieces don’t know the gift came from me, after all the effort.) Giving gifts is easy — if you pay attention throughout the year. It is very likely that the person you’re giving gifts to, at some point, mentioned something they wanted/needed during the year. If you had listened and made a note — you will have had the answer already.So, as a first tip for the future, start a mini diary where you make a note every time someone says they want/need/miss something. Come Christmas you’ll find that you have a lot of ideas in your diary. This not only makes things easier, it also highly impresses the recipient to know that you’ve been paying attention.This is true, by the way, even if by now they actually already gotten the Bluetooth speaker they mentioned in July, or the silk bedding that came up in the conversation in March.

So now, let’s assume you don’t have this diary and have no inside information. What now?For someone who has everything, there are a couple of answers. One quite popular these days is to gift a shared experience (i.e., a dinner you cook, a kayaking trip you go to together, or a spa day you arrange for the two of you).

Moran Cerf.

Moran Cerf

Even if they had that experience before, they haven’t had it with you. So the experience context is new, and — assuming they like you — is seen as a gift.If you want to go for something material, and you believe the person really does have everything, or can afford to have everything they want, one thing you can do is aim for something in your budget that is the “top of a category they wouldn’t buy themselves.” John Ruhlin, author of “Giftology,” has the example of buying an expensive “box” for a friend.

Read more: The lucrative lives of professional Christmas decorators, who charge as much as $80,000 to deck a house’s halls and say business is booming this yearHe suggests that if you were going to spend $50 on a gift, and the person really loves watches, for example, then buying them a $50 watch may not do the job compared to the ones a watch collector may own. But getting them a box for a watch that costs $50 may actually prove quite fancy.So instead of getting a cheaper thing in category A, you get an expensive item in category B, a cheaper category. You get the top item in a different domain rather than a lower item in a domain you cannot afford. Instead of a fancy new game console, you can buy the best game for it; or instead of an expensive power tool, you get a really good level.Thinking about the brain in that context, the way our brain resolves internal challenges is often not by identifying the optimal solution, but rather by reframing the problem. This is a key tool in emotion regulation and in therapy that allows our brain to overcome problems without always solving them. 

Q: Do you have advice on how to find a good gift for a family member who already has everything and they don’t need anything?One way to make a gift associated with you — rather than, say, Santa — is to put yourself in the gift. Here are a few ways.If the gift has a visual component (i.e., a picture frame, or an external hard drive) you can add something of yours to it. If it’s a picture frame you can put a picture of you and your nieces in it when you gift it. They may replace the picture, but the initial link is generated in their episodic memory. If it is a hard drive, you may leave a file that you want them to have: maybe a movie that you want them to watch, or a folder with some app they like. Research in neuroscience shows that only a single association between an item and a person is needed to create a memory, IF it is the first association created for an experience — meaning, if your nieces get a picture of you and them in the frame you will be registered with this frame even after the replaced your initial content. 

Read more: Sleep-tracking ring Oura is beloved by some of the biggest names in tech. We asked 7 investors and execs how it’s helped them revamp their routines to sleep better and live healthier.And… one last thought on the nieces’ gift.There are quite a few studies in brain development and memory, and the unfortunate bottom line is that it’s likely that kids until the age of 2 will not really form explicit memories. They will form impressions (and events leave marks on them, and define trajectories of their personality development), but most likely won’t remember much of the gift or your involvement in it at this stage.So think of the gift as a way to shape their future self, and to start building a path together. And if you optimize for explicit memory, save some of the planned expenses for the next year or two, when they are more likely to code your role in the summoning of the Barbie Dollhouse. 

Moran Cerf is a professor of neuroscience and business who explores how we can harness our understanding of the brain to improve our behavior, our business, and society. He’s a former hacker, a science consultant to Hollywood films and TV shows, and the founder of a number of companies.