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November 25, 2015

Infrequently Asked Questions: Why are shoppers so aggressive on Black Friday?

The world is full of questions we all want answers to but are either too embarrassed, time-crunched or intimidated to actually ask. In the spirit of that shared experience, we've embarked on a journey to answer all of the questions that burn in the minds of Philadelphians -- everything from universal curiosities (Can rice really fix a water-damaged phone?) to Philly-specific musings (How does one clean the Liberty Bell?). 

To say that tensions run high in store aisles during Black Friday would be an almost laughable understatement. When the doors finally open and crowds barrel through like water gushing through a floodgate, all of our niceties are suddenly suspended in pursuit of that half-off gadget we just need to have.

While there's surely no clear-cut answer for why every techie cuts in line for a laptop or why moms shove bystanders aside in search of Elmo, Temple University professor of psychology Frank Farley, formerly president of the American Psychological Association, was kind enough to weigh in on the subject and explain why our rather aggressive approach to Black Friday deal-finding has potential to get even more intense.

Why do people take on a sort of "mob mentality" when Walmart or Best Buy opens its doors to crowds? You know, the idea that people lose who they are for a few moments and might be a little rude or, in extreme cases, trample someone?

Everybody loves a bargain, and the economy is not booming right now, so bargains are bargains and there's a kind of psychological satisfaction to beat the list price. [Bargains] tend to focus on the primary product of our age, which is electronics. And with Christmas coming and other holidays, people are also thinking of gifts, and so they don’t want to miss out. So, there’s the economic side. 

And then there’s the fun side, for some people, which is that it’s kind of "different." Our lives are typically pretty humdrum... There’s a kind of excitement associated with it that you could maybe call an ‘arousal breakout’ – it’s going to be exciting.

And when folks get there -- so, this is speculation of mine about how important tools are in the history of the human race. We love tools. Tools have helped very strongly to create the human race that we are and as soon as we started developing tools it gained us power over the environment and the world at large. And the newest tools of the human species are heavily electronic ... We combine tools and toys, and they can be things we need as students or in our job ... and tools we need to live in the 21st century, but they’re also fun. They combine with the utilitarian side. 

What I’m saying here is that the things we’re going to purchase -- primarily electronics, but not solely – are incredibly attractive. There’s high motivation to acquire these things. That’s the kind of stuff that will get people through the door. 

And when they’re there, then you get into the issue of crowd behavior, with terms like social facilitation and emotional contagion as factors that might kick in when you have a lot of people converging on a very finite space, coming into extremely close contact. We know that social behavior can have a downside ... And sometimes things can go wrong. Someone might fall down and other people fall on top of them and that can happen easily, or somebody throws a punch and pretty soon you’ve got a whole melee going on – I don’t think that happens too much, but there’s this social facilitation, the proximity of people in a social situation. It facilitates some bad behaviors; emotions run high when two people are arguing or screaming over something -- the classic image of them holding on to a product and pulling from two ends because both people want the one product available. 

What is emotional contagion?

It’s not been vastly researched, but it’s like any form of contagion where people start expressing anger, and other people start expressing anger ... There might be a social situation where a couple of people are crying and other people begin to cry. And laughter, we know the spread of laughter. There are laughing societies in India where all people do is sit around and laugh. It's contagious. Pretty soon everybody’s laughing. That’s a form of emotional contagion. It can be positive, or it could be negative with anger or sadness. So it’s just a sort of interpersonal transmission of emotions, basically.

So, are you saying that, since we’re so reliant on electronics now as part of our lives, the motivation level [among Black Friday shoppers] has spiked?

Yep. This is like if you were starving, then food would be the motivator. Electronics just have this incredible role in our lives these days, and so it’s become a necessity and not a luxury. We all need them. And so that means it’s increasingly becoming a part of our financial life. And they’re expensive ... So that makes Black Friday, with its focus on electronics and bargains, a powerful day for the consumer.

And how often do you hear of stampeding at A.C. Moore, right?

[Laughs] It could be that those craft types are just different, but yeah. Exactly. That stuff at A.C. Moore and all the crafts and everything is more of a boutique phenomenon. It’s not food; it’s not an essential. Electronics is an absolute essential of the 21st century. If you’re not with it, you're not with this time and era, and you could end up on the bone heap in all sorts of ways – occupationally, etc. You have to be tuned into electronics today.

Anything you'd like to add?

I hope there are no tragedies on Friday.

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