The Psychology of Black Friday: The Social Proof and Scarcity Principles Run Amok

psychology of black friday

Now is NOT the time to need a bathroom. Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/just4you

By now, I’m guessing that many Black Friday shoppers are rushing home with their treasures, exhausted from their 4 am treks to Target, Walmart, and Best Buy.  Hopefully, the news tonight will be blissfully free of stories of Christmas shoppers being trampled to death by herds of elephants fellow shoppers.  But chances are, there could be some pretty horrific stories about shoppers doing evil deeds to their fellow deal hunters.  How can this be explained?  What is the psychology of black friday madness?

Now, please don’t stop reading thinking this is another “I hate Black Friday! All Black Friday shoppers are spawn of of evil self-serving capitalistic…blah blah blah.”  I freely admit that I popped on to Toys R Us website last night promptly at 8 pm to pick up the last of my girls’ Christmas gifts, and this morning I finished up shopping for my boyfriend.  Why pay more than I need to, right?  My boyfriend stayed up late stalking Amazon so he could get Katie (my youngest) a Furby on sale.  Alas – his sacrifice of staying up past his bed time (a true act of love) was for naught.  By the time he watched the countdown to the deal start and moved to click the “Buy” button = sold out.  Last year, I actually braved the crowds to spend an evening with my fellow Buffalonians standing in line outside Toys R Us.  A nice man gave me some whiskey apple juice while we waited in the cold.

The group psychology of Black Friday is pretty interesting.  After all, it’s not every day that you find a woman using pepper spray to clear her way through the video game aisle (yep, that happened last year).  And honestly, that’s pretty minor.  Google “Black Friday injuries” and you’ll come up with a long list of horrors, including trampling deaths, paralysis, and miscarriages.  There has to be something more at work here – at what point would anyone in their right mind actually injure a pregnant woman in order to save some money?  Or take whiskey apple juice  from a stranger??  I have to believe more in humanity than that.  So what’s behind all this shopping mob madness?

Sociologists and psychologists will probably tell you that its a combination of factors.  But there are two main theories that play into it the Black Friday frenzy.  The first is called the Social Proof Principle.  This is what your mama was talking about when she said in a really annoying tone, “If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you too?”  The educated child’s response would be, “Why yes, mother, if I am operating under the Social Proof Principle.”  My children get locked in the closet praised profusely for their advanced wisdom when putting forth such gems.

But I digress.  The social proof principle basically says that you can manipulate a person or a group of people by telling them that other people are doing it.  It works even better if the people who are doing it are really cool people, people with authority, or people who you identify as being similar to yourself.  Basically, we look to our peers for cues on how to behave.  While it is ordinarily completely okay to take social cues from your peers, it’s subject to being manipulated by nefarious marketers and/or cult leaders.  Basically, this is how they get us to drink the Kool-Aid or buy the timeshare.

Then you add in the real kicker behind Black Friday.  The Scarcity Principle.  This is what has driven men to drop gazillions of dollars on little shiny rocks for their women…the world has us convinced that diamonds are rare, and therefore, valuable.  Basically, the less of something there is, the more importance or value we assign to it.  Marketers have this principle down to a science, especially on Black Friday.  The more “limited” the number, or the more of a “door buster” that the product is, the more we want it.  Even if we didn’t really want or need something in the first place, the idea that we might lose it makes it that much more desirable.   Case in point – people buying Twinkies on Ebay for $10.  I bet a good portion of those people do not, on a regular basis, eat Twinkies.  However, the key to the scarcity principle’s power lies in one fact – people want a scarce resource even more when they have to compete with others for it.

Ding ding ding!  There you have it – the ingredients for a perfect storm.  ”Limited” resources (as told to us by advertisers) +  extreme competition with others for said resource + everyone else is doing it = totally ok to pepper spray a crowd of people to get an Xbox game.   Add in the emotions that kick in and take over our cognitive abilities, and you have the essence of mob psychology.  And Ebay.

Obviously, being arrested for assault or seriously injuring someone is probably not going to get you on Santa’s nice list.  And in a less serious situation, overspending is probably not the best thing for your budget.  So what to do?  Since I only do my Black Friday shopping online these days, I made myself take a 15 minute break before I checked out.  As such, I removed about $50 of things my kids really didn’t need that I had gathered in my initial 8 pm rush.  I know I’ll be thanking myself later when I go to balance the checkbook.

So how do you stop yourself from Ninja kicking someone’s Grandma keep your cool on Black Friday and the holiday shopping season?

 

 

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Comments

  1. Interesting! I go out every Black Friday, its one of my favorite days of the year! This year I noticed that it was not so crowded out. Strage

  2. I loved this post,. We went out maybe twice on a black Friday, but we don’t anymore..

  3. For me–it is quite easy–I don’t shop in stores on Black Friday!! Fortunately for me Psychology has never worked all that well–While I will buy something I need on sale if I don’t have to buck crowds to get it–there is no way I would go near any of the stores (I might end up committing murder!! Crowds get me crazy!!))–As for Ebay and auctions? I’d much rather shop with WAH Mom’s!! On a side note–you are totally correct with what you wrote!!

  4. Interesting read. Not as much of an issue here in Canada although many of my friends go to the States to shop. Glad to hear you made it through for another year.

    Besos, Sarah
    Zookeeper at Journeys of The Zoo

  5. Interesting. I don’t go out on Black Friday due to having social anxiety and crowds really send me into a spin, but I always had a curiosity about it. Thanks for the article!

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