Gift giving is an art and those who excel at it are simply, well, gifted, but picking presents can be a science, too. We talked to a few psychology experts to learn how cognitive theory can help everyone earn a gold star in gift giving. Katie Aberbach, Washington Post
Ignore the crowds
Remember the hype over Tickle Me Elmos in 1996, or the frenzy to nab a Cabbage Patch Kid in the '80s? In both instances, harried parents fought each other in stores across the country. Those dolls had one major factor going for them: They were in short supply. Blame heuristics — ingrained inclinations to behave without thinking. In this case, the scarcity heuristic makes us value things that are hard to obtain, says Wray Herbert, the author of On Second Thought (Crown, $25). "Simply perceiving that something is rare skews your thinking and behavior," Herbert says. "That's what merchandisers are doing when they say 'available for a limited time' and 'while they last.' They're trying to create this false sense of scarcity or rarity so it will boost our desire for something."
You think you should: Get a hot new piece of video game equipment, such as the widely anticipated Kinect sensor for the Xbox 360 ($150). During the last week of October, retailers including Amazon, Best Buy and Toys "R" Us, sold out of preorders for the gadget, which detects players' sound and motion without using controllers. It's looking like some unlucky gift givers might end up camping out in front of Target so they'll be the only ones on their blocks with a Kinect.
Try this instead: Get an old-fashioned board game. Stevanne Auerbach, author of Smart Play Smart Toys, analyzes a wide range of playthings each year. She believes the best presents for kids — and many adults — are often not trendy, hard-to-find items, but ones that can be enjoyed with others. "Playing board games with the family is something kids remember for a long time," says Auerbach, who has a Ph.D. in child development and psychology. Check out some updated crowd-pleasers such as Clue: Secrets and Spies ($25) or Monopoly: Revolution ($35).
Familiarity is misleading
Advertisers love traditions — especially the time-honored practice of preying upon our deep-seated desire for what we know (that is, taking advantage of the familiarity heuristic).
"Madison Avenue tries to keep drilling brand names into your brain so that they become so familiar that you associate them with comfort, safety and feeling good," Herbert says. "Buying Dad a tie for Christmas: It's a joke we laugh about, but we don't want to break away from it because our brain resists change. We stick with what we know is going to work."
You think you should: Get the latest gadgets from famous brands, like Apple's iPad (starts at $499), the fastest-adopted new nonphone technology ever, according to Bernstein Research; and Amazon's newest generation of Kindle e-readers (from $139), which became the bestselling products on Amazon.com by the end of October.
Try this instead: Consider other brands' versions, some of which are also shaping up to be hot gifts, according to Consumer Reports electronics editor Paul Reynolds. Among the standout alternatives is Barnes & Noble's Nook Color (starts at $249), and Samsung's Android-based Galaxy 7-inch tablet ($600) is also already looking popular, Reynolds says.
Less is more
Picking from a vast spectrum of potential presents "paralyzes us" as shoppers, says Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College and the author of The Paradox of Choice (Harper Perennial, $15) and the forthcoming Practical Wisdom (Riverhead, $26). "It's hard enough when we're choosing for ourselves, but when we're choosing for somebody else, it's even worse."
You think you should: Get a gift card, which would allow the recipient to buy whatever he or she wants.
Try this instead: Try surprising the recipient with something that "makes a connection between you and them, that tells them you've noticed something about them or appreciate something about them," recommends Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School and the author of The Art of Choosing (Twelve, $26). "Gifts that stay in the memory bank have more value." Schwartz recommends experiential presents. "I think the greatest gift is the gift of time, so if you can give gifts that free up time for the recipient, that's a lot better than a sweater," Schwartz says.