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'The madness of the crowds': The psychology behind Black Friday

What makes Black Friday shoppers wait in line in the cold for sale items? Here's a hint: It's rarely about bargains.
/ Source: TODAY

Happy Black Friday, everyone!

Time to gather the children ‘round, dress them in warm clothes, and grab a few blankets as the whole family prepares to wait in line for hours at the first of many doorbuster sales.

Sound crazy?

Nearly 136 million Americans are expected to shop over Thanksgiving weekend, according to the National Retail Federation. Last year, consumers spent nearly $51 billion between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, a figure that's actually down a bit from previous years.

Black Friday Shoppers
A crowd of shoppers at a Target store on Black Friday.Jonathan Alcorn / Reuters

Though Black Friday shoppers are often depicted in the media as frenzied consumers wrestling each other for discounted TVs, the psychological reasons behind the phenomenon aren’t nearly as nutty.

So why do we do it?

Family tradition

For many families, Black Friday shopping is a tradition, says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist, professor emerita at Golden Gate University and author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind.”

“They did it when they were kids. They want to do it with their own kids,” says Yarrow.

It’s a way for relatives of all ages to spend a day together. “There is something for everybody in the marketplace. The kids are excited about Santa. Other family members are excited about snatching up bargains.”

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A sense of community

Troy Campbell, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Oregon, says Black Friday, for his family and many others, is its own holiday.

Campbell's mother and siblings once bundled up on a chilly Durham, North Carolina, night and waited in line to buy an Xbox. About 2,000 other game lovers waited with them for the clock to strike midnight.

He compares the experience to that of a "Star Wars" or "Harry Potter" film opening.

After all, anyone willing to line up for a doorbuster deal is purchasing something they love, or something a family member loves.

“So you spend Black Friday focusing on those things and talking to others about them. It creates a great sense of community.”

Collectible experiences

What we buy on Black Friday — like any merchandise we purchase on vacations and special occasions — becomes a collectible memory.

Campbell's childhood Xbox was infused with the memory of doing something special with his family.

Read more: Fool your brain into fewer Thanksgiving calories

Competitive shopping

Of course, not all shoppers get into Black Friday for the warm memories. Some just like to shop competitively, says Yarrow.

A small fraction of “competitive sports shoppers,” as Yarrow calls them, get in the game for the bargains. The rest? “They’re in it to win it,” she says.

“The fact that other people want something and they get it makes them feel better about themselves."

Competitive shoppers are excited by “the madness of the crowds.”

“This is how they win and they are proud of it. They scored that $35 TV and whenever they watch it, it’s a symbol of their prowess,” says Yarrow.

Campbell agrees. For many shoppers, Black Friday is all about strategy, he says.

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He compares it to playing a video game. The first time, you bumble through it. Every time after that, you “level up,” by figuring out how to plan your shopping, when to take a break, and so forth.

Maybe it’s primal?

Black Friday's consumerism is steeped in evolutionary primes, says Gad Saad, professor of marketing at Concordia University in Montreal.

Saad, author of “The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature,” cites studies that examine how environmental cues can motivate people to choose immediate gratification over the delayed kind.

Simply put, Black Friday creates a mindset of “must act now.”

“It’s triggering this rush — there is scarcity, there is time pressure. The herd is going out,” says Saad.

“So it’s like, ‘OK, let me join the herd. Let me go hoarding.’”