This past Christmas, my partner gave me the perfect present: a book I’d never heard of or asked for, by an author that was brand new to me. I read it and I loved it.

It was perfect for a whole host of other reasons (it fit our budget, I was looking for a new book) but the main reason was that it was a complete and delightful surprise. I find that with giving gifts, you want to get them something they’ll love, something they’ll use, and something they wouldn’t get for themselves. T’s present to me ticked all the boxes.

To give the perfect gift, you can use psychology to get inside your gift’s recipient’s head and make sure you give them something they’ll remember forever.

Mistakes are easy to make.

At gift-giving occasions, I always see two traps being fallen into. The first is forgivable. The second, less so.

First is giving people what they’ve asked for. My friend’s family, for example, operate on a list-basis. They’ll make a list of things they want or need, and their family members will purchase exclusively from the list.

While that’s great, it ends up just a bit imbalanced. Wealthy people, when they want something, tend to get it for themselves. Simultaneously, they won’t put down anything they really want or need on their own list, because they know others wouldn’t feel comfortable spending that amount of money.

Some people suggest a budget at this point, but even that defeats the purpose of gift-giving. Why not just exchange wads of cash? What’s the point in making a shopping list for someone else to buy for you, when you’re going to spend an equivalent amount of money on them? Where’s the magic?

Does this lady look comfortable to you? Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

The second common trap is when gift-givers buy for themselves, not for the recipient. For example, one of my friends received a very uncomfortable set of lingerie from her then-boyfriend for Christmas. He then expected her to wear it — for him. That’s not in the spirit of gift-giving.

On a similar note, I’ve seen people give gifts as a way of asserting status, either by being lavish and expensive. Sometimes they’ll give a gift with no thought at all as to what their beloved might actually like, but it’s easy and quick.

Giving the perfect gift is hard, so it’s tempting to cop out and buy from a list, or buy something that’s actually for you, or get flowers and chocolate. It’s much harder, but much worthwhile, to give the perfect gift using what you know about the person.

Here’s how you do it.

Something they’ll love.

This is the most obvious and, if you know the person well, easiest. My partner knew I loved fantasy books, he knew I was vocally feminist, and he knew I’d been annoyed about the portrayal of women in fantasy since getting interested in the genre.

Photo by Marko Blažević on Unsplash

Ergo, he bought me a fantasy book written by a Black woman (N. K. Jemisin, whom I cannot recommend highly enough) who did a marvellous job portraying female characters. He’s not a fantasy lover, so he had to do a lot of research into what might be a “good” fantasy book for my requirements. He absolutely nailed it.

You can use psychology to extrapolate from what you know they love, to find something you’re pretty sure they’ll love.

T knows me really, really well. So he ticked this box without a hiccup: I absolutely loved my gift.

Something they’ll use.

The second rule is to get them something they’ll use. We’re visual animals, primarily, so when we see something, or use something, frequently, it strengthens the neurological connection to the memory of how we got that thing.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

For example, my parents got me a fancy Italian espresso machine for my birthday last year. I use it most mornings, and every time I do, I think of them. I’m reminded to be grateful for it (and for not having to drink drip filter coffee anymore) and I reflect on how much I like the gift.

Giving a great gift makes the recipient feel good — not just once, when they receive it, but time and time again as they continue to use it and get a chance to remember how much they like it.

Something they wouldn’t get for themselves.

This is the absolute hardest one to nail, and yet when you get it right, there’s no better feeling in the world.

The best way to do this is to use the Aristotelean rule: treat others as their best selves would want us to treat them. Try to think about the very best in a person — think about where they want to be in a year, what they admire most in themselves. And get them something that reflects that.

Photo by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

When we buy for ourselves, we tend to buy things that reflect our immediate lives and needs. Our hands are cold, we buy mittens. We need a coffee maker, we get the most practical one. So to give a good gift, you go beyond that.

When my parents got me the espresso maker, they weren’t giving it to plain old Zulie who needed a fast way to wake up in the mornings. They were giving it to aspirational Zulie, who would someday soon work from home, who had a discerning taste in coffee, who enjoyed the ritual of grinding the beans, steaming the milk, and creating the perfect brew.

Similarly, I gave my sister a pair of fashionable gloves. She’d never buy them for herself — she considers herself to be a very practical person — but she cycles to work every day, and I thought she’d like to have a fancy pair. Happily, she did.


Giving a gift is one of the most intimate and loving things you can do. It gives you a chance to condense everything you know about a person, everything you think they like and love and need, and spend a small amount of money to fulfil a dream they didn’t even know they had.

You can tell someone you love them as often as you like, but by using psychology you can give your loved ones something they’ll love, use, but never think to get themselves. You’re anticipating their very nature. You’re telling them without words that you know them and love them, and want to fill the gaps in their lives they’d never noticed.