Applied Psychology

The surprising psychology of Black Friday consumerism

Nov 21, 2018

Understand the consumer psychology of Black Friday and why it generates so much interest and draws such huge crowds.

The term “Black Friday” was first used by retail marketers after World War II to signal the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, when many retailers finally go “in the black” – that is, they become profitable for the year. The trend began to pick up in the consumerism-crazed 1980s when retailers began to draw crowds of deal-hungry shoppers by flooding their stores with ultra-cheap products. But these densely populated and highly charged environments became something more than a shopaholic’s paradise… They became seething battlegrounds where ordinary people seemed descend into savagery: stampeding, fighting and looting often resulting in destruction of property, injury and even loss of life. Many turned to psychologists to better understand this behaviour, and how it can be avoided.

Consumer psychology

Consumer psychology is a branch of the discipline that is interested in the who, what and why of sales and provides some insight into why super-sales like Black Friday generate so much interest and draw such huge crowds. The first suggestion is quite obvious: people don’t want to miss out. Research has shown that fearing regret in the future a plays a big role in how we make our decisions. This also influences whether or not we make our purchases on the day; in the short term we feel more regret for actions that led to a bad outcome but long-run regret is often linked to actions that we didn’t take. Our personalities will also play a role in how we decide to act – those of us who are more spontaneous are more likely to snatch something up without a second thought!


Neuropsychology shows us that events like Black Friday have interesting effects on our brain chemistry. Pinching that last sizzling hot flat screen TV deal sends our dopamine levels soaring and gives us a rush that lights up our reward centers of our brain. It is believed that dopamine is involved in the learning and is produced when we experience novelty and makes us more impulsive and animated. Non-stop, dopamine-surging activity that causes excess of dopamine, without the balance of serotonin and other important neurotransmitters, is not good for us and has even been linked to building addictions such as gambling.

Social psychology

There are a number of theories in social psychology that attempt to explain why individuals, who are normally upstanding citizens, would suddenly begin behaving in an antisocial manner, like being aggressive and vandalising property. One of the most well-known, is the theory of deindividuation, which suggests that when we are a part of a large group, we are less likely to moderate our behaviour because we feel less identifiable. Researchers have also found this phenomenon in online bullying: we are more likely to bully or be unkind to someone if we know that they don’t know who we are. Research has shown that higher levels of both positive and negative emotion can lead individuals to do things like that would never do on their own. On the one hand, we might happily dance in crowd when we would usually be too shy to dance on our own. On the other hand, we might feel inclined to help our fellow group members pry open a locked door, even though we would never do that under normal circumstances.

Group type

Research has also shown that the type of crowd can influence behaviour. Some might call a Black Friday group an acquisitive mob which means that large numbers of people are fighting for limited resources. These differ from aggressive mobs, like riots, which tend to be united in a particular goal, focused and especially destructive. Acquisitive mobs are likely be filled with infighting, making them especially chaotic. This is supported by research that shows that witnessing the antisocial behaviour of those around us, in a large group increases the likelihood that we ourselves will participate.

So do I stay at home?

While your nearby retail shops are likely to be busy, you’re unlikely to get any wilder than an accidental trolley bump! But for those who prefer a quieter shopping experience, the advent of online shopping has become a huge draw for many people – all the deals, none of the queues! Will you brave the queues and get your adrenaline pumping or have a quiet browse online?

Fascinated by everyday psychology? Interested in develop a range of ways to understand the world? Enquire now to find the ideal course for you.

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