Our Psychological Love for Black Friday Runs Deep

On the surface, Black Friday doesn’t seem like something we should love or honestly even go outside for while sacrificing sweet, tryptophan-induced slumber. Camping out before dawn for a chance to score 50% off socks? Waiting in line for almost an hour to buy a $5 Blu-ray copy of a movie you’ve seen three times and know is streaming on Netflix? The possibility of punching your fellow man in the face and then flinging yourself on top of a flat-screen TV? Who does that?

You. You do that.

But why does Black Friday turn our otherwise rational adult selves into deal-crazed loonies standing in the cold, giving other shoppers side eye?

It Starts With a Leak...

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise, but Black Friday is driven by competition.

“Bringing home reduced-price goods by the end of the day has become a badge of honor,” says Nicole Matusow, licensed psychotherapist and master social worker. “In many ways, it's like a hunter-gatherer mentality.”

And that drive to bring home the bacon (in this case, the discounted electronics), is largely behind why we start hunting for deals days—or even weeks—before the actual event. We want to win, but we also want to provide for our families or ourselves on a basic human level.

And much like our ancestors would stalk the mighty mammoth, we stalk the mighty Internet, looking for "leaked" ads that will help us plan our attack and eventual conquer in advance.

Marketing Helps Too...

Of course, marketing goes deeper—way deeper—than a few early leaked ads during the holiday shopping season. We do call it the shopping season after all.

The commercials start early, relying on emotional pull to draw shoppers in, and it works.

“This one stands out for me: ‘It only happens once a year!” says Matusow. “This could lead us to worry that we're missing out on great savings, or it could make us feel sentimental for the holiday season. Either way, we're putty in their hands.”

And it isn’t just a few TV spots that make you want to shop, the retailers know how to give us those warm and fuzzy holiday feelings.

“We are classically conditioned to hear this music, see these lights, even the experience of the shorter days and associate it with spending and shopping,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist.

For consumers, the emotional triggers can be tricky. It is hard to make a rational decision when your heart is swelling up three sizes like the Grinch’s did on Christmas Day, and that could be a problem.

“Emotion plus spending rarely adds up to prudent decision making,” Durvasula says.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t love those cutesy, heart-string-tugging commercials and family friendly holiday soundtracks anyway.

The Deals Don’t Hurt Either...

It isn’t all just marketing hubbub that gets us in the stores, retailers do offer some good deals on Black Friday, which gives some shoppers a sense of freedom.

“It's getting license to spend more than you might have if there weren't a sign that said ‘Sale!’" says Matusow. "Or it’s getting license to shop [at all], which for some people is a guilty pleasure.” 

For many people, it can even just be a good way to blow off steam. Especially after a long day of dealing with family.

And for some, the deals represent another form of competition: outsmarting the other guy.

“Black Friday offers some items at lower-than-usual prices, but we also believe whatever the stores tell us," says Matusow. "If a sign says, ‘50% off,’ we believe we're getting half off the price. But instead, we might be getting 50% off MSRP.” 

For deal-hunters, a misleading ad is something else that can thoroughly entice a shopper. “It's often the sense of getting away with something,” Durvasula says, of people's desire to get the thrill of gaming the system (at least in their minds) or outsmarting the stores or other shoppers.

The possibility of a deception prevents a chance to beat the retailer and find a better price elsewhere, essentially knowing a secret few other shoppers know.

Hell Is an Endless Line...

Black Friday isn’t just famous for deals and competitive shoppers. The sales holiday is also famous for horrific lines, often forming outside of the store hours before it opens. Shoppers bring tents, snacks and blankets to keep warm. Local news stations gather for sound bites. On any other day, it is many people’s definition of hell, something you couldn’t pay them to do.

“People who wait in line for hours, or days, would likely not wait in line only to earn the amount of money they saved,” says Matusow.

Still every year like clockwork, there we are again, drudging out into the cold only for the promise of a discount and a chance to rub very, very close elbows with hundreds of our fellow man.

Why do we do it? For many people it is simply the fear of missing out, according to Matusow. For others, it is sport.

“If you do something unorthodox like sleep out in a line, you are in essence earning or winning a prize, since in just a few hours others may be paying twice as much for the same item,” Durvasula says.

And sometimes, it is for love.

“It is the emotion of certain items that may be overly valued, such as electronics, or represents a gift that someone very much wants,” Durvasula says.

After all, when your five-year-old looks up at you with big eyes and says Christmas will be ruined without a DinoTrux MegaChompin’ Ty Rux, hell hath no fury like a parent on a mission.

You Wanna Fight, Bro?...

Of course, Black Friday is infamous for something else too – brawls. Lots and lots of brawls. Seems every year at least one mob-turned-punching contest makes its way onto the local nightly news.

It isn’t something most people would every consider doing. We can’t imagine it being us on the news, police struggling to pry our hands off the last Rachael Ray cook set while some frazzled woman in the corner tells a reporter, “I don’t know what happened. She just went insane and slapped me before throwing herself on the pans.”

But what makes some of us do just that? It all goes back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

It starts with an adrenaline rush, an intense amount of stimulation and a healthy dose of FOMO pumping through our veins, according to Matusow. But right before we shout, "Mortal Kombat!" it turns into something else.

“[In that situation] you have the potential for bloodshed over a Star Wars figure, which becomes symbolic,” Matusow says.

"Can I provide for my family?" you ask yourself. 

"Yes!" you determine. "And I'm willing to punch this guy in his nose for that toy to prove it!" 

Still, symbolic or not, we don’t suggest you actually punching someone.

“Bottom line: Black Friday may not be good for our health, mental or otherwise,” Durvasula says. And it definitely won’t be if you end up that guy on the news.

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