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The Nightmarish Psychology Behind Black Friday

The one-day shopping bonanza has become a crazed global phenomenon. How did we get here?
November 27, 2015, 2:40pm
Photo by Victor Deschamps via Stocksy

Today, Britain will spend an estimated £1 billion and the average American will shell out a whopping $600. In this evening's news we'll see people lining up, running, shouting, fighting, and losing all sense of sanity, all for the sake of a 30 percent discount.

When did we all decide to collectively lose our minds over Black Friday?

Mindless overconsumption and persuasive brand tactics aren't, of course, unique to today. From Walmart to Topshop to Costco, retailers have an arsenal of tricks up their sleeves to make you buy stuff all year long. From the moment you step into a store or log onto their website, they're quietly engineering your path to the checkout.

Read More: The Broadly Guide to Shopping

But Black Friday is when they really go to town, making sure that not only do you make it to the checkout, but you get there fast, and with more unnecessary purchases than you can shake a maxed out credit card at. And we all happily play along.

Behavioral psychology strategist John Gibbard says that when push comes to shove, we're really not as advanced as we like to think. "Retailers want to promote a sense of scarcity: 'We have limited stock,' and at the same time, demonstrate social proof: 'Everyone else thinks this is a great deal.' When the two are combined you're really looking at an elevated fear of missing out." That's right: we overindulge because of FOMO.

Photo by Alita Ong via Stocksy

"On Black Friday, popularity is highly visible. In physical stores you can see the crowds, the herd surging toward big-ticket discounts," Gibbard continues. "The retailers will use time as the marker, opening their sales at midnight or majoring on the 'today only' and 'while stocks last' labelling."

When shops say ready, steady, go—we end up going. And when you make it to the till with your discount designer handbags, you probably won't blink an eyelid at buying a full price life-size Justin Bieber calendar, just for the hell of it.

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It's only recently that psychologists have started to look to our cave-dwelling ancestors to understand why shopping like this can be so addictive. "Studies have shown that the grab/pluck arm flexion actually encourages people to purchase more," explains Gibbard. "This Darwinian theory is that such behaviour harks back to our gathering past as we plucked and picked fruits and food from the world around us. When we found an abundant source we'd make the most of it and the pleasure-seeking pathways in our brains would be rewarded."

What I love about [Black Friday] is it proves we're not as advanced as we like to think.

And of course there's the darker side of overconsumption. With credit cards, payday loans and 24-hour internet access, it's never been easier for a shopping habit to slide into addiction. Psychotherapist Adrienne Baker, the editor of Serious Shopping: Essays in Psychotherapy and Consumerism, says the bored housewife stereotype is truer than you might think. "Of the people who are addicted, very often it's a high percentage of women. And they're in some way impoverished emotionally. They have a tremendous amount of emptiness inside."

Even if you're not an addict popular theory tends to agree on one thing: If you're shopping a lot, you're probably trying to compensate for the lack of something else in your life. "Lonely people shop a lot too," suggests Baker. "They're buying another self-image. Putting on plumage. It's the idea of developing a different self. If you get the right clothes, the right makeup, the right jewelry. All of that."

Jon Alexander, former ad exec and founder of the New Citizenship Project (a social innovation lab set up to champion the idea that we are citizens, not just consumers) thinks we could really do better. "I feel it's a massive shame that we've got to the point where we effectively have a day of celebration of our own sense of inferiority, and the idea that the best thing we can possibly achieve as human beings is getting a good deal. "

To add insult to injury, it's not just bad for us, it's bad for business. "Black Friday is such a ludicrous concept that it doesn't even make business sense," Alexander continues. He is hopeful for the future of mankind, citing initiatives such as Wild Friday (where American states offer free entry to national parks) and ASDA's decision to opt out, but we've probably got to put up with a few more years of this festive Hunger-Games-on-steroids behaviour.

Before you go tearing up your credit cards in despair, try seeing the funny side like John Gibbard. "What I love about this is it proves we're not as advanced as we like to think," he explains. "It might seem like this is a modern malaise and symptomatic of a broken society but, if anything, it proves that whether it's in The Mall of America, Westfield, the Birmingham Bullring or pulling a late night session on the iPad, we're all just trying to get the berries from the bush before the next tribe does."