The Mob Psychology of “Black Friday”

I liked this comment from a reader about my column entitled, “What I Don’t Get About the Holidays”:

Good post. Also, what I don’t get is the craziness of this ‘gift giving’ for the sake of ‘gift giving’ and to not look bad in front of others. Why not give gifts year round, not because you are expected to or, who cares about the material stuff anyways? The amount of stress and debt people subject themselves to around Christmas shopping is ridiculous.

I agree. What’s fascinating to me is the popularity, in recent years, of the shopping frenzy on the day after Thanksgiving known as “Black Friday.” As best as I can tell, it’s a mob psychology. It’s not really about enjoying the giving or receiving of gifts. It’s  more of a frenetic, compulsive buying spree for its own sake. It’s not clear to me what anyone gets out of it. It seems more like the herd acting in unison: “Everyone else is doing this, so I should too.”

I no longer exchange Christmas gifts, not because I’m against them in principle — not at all — but simply because I and my loved ones already have what we need, and don’t hesitate to buy what we want throughout the year. But if I still did shop for Christmas gifts, I wouldn’t go out with the mobs. I’d actually try to thoughtfully select things throughout the year. I’d want to shop in as much peace and quiet as possible, so I can carefully find and select the things I want to buy. I’d recognize that there are more crowds than usual at Christmas time, and to some extent this might even be festive and fun. But I wouldn’t deliberately seek out the mob.

On one level, it’s surprising to see this compulsion for holiday shopping rise in our current era. This is the Obama era, the era of strident anti-capitalism, the era of anti-business in the most profound way since the founding of the United States. People seem to hate capitalism — and yet they mob the malls and the stores to seek out the fruits of the capitalism still with us. How can this be?

There actually is an explanation. Most children are raised to relate to others not as individuals, but in terms of the group. Most parents motivate their children by telling them things like, “You don’t want to be that way, do you? Nobody will like you.” Most schools educate their children in groups. They’re told to think in front of one another, in a classroom format, rather than adopt the tools for thinking for themselves, as individuals. “What others think of me” is the underlying trend in just about everything in our culture. Sure, there are exceptions. And there are always exceptional individuals who buck these trends, regardless of what’s going on in the larger culture. Nevertheless, the trends are there. And one instance of this trend is Black Friday, where a bunch of people gather together in packs and herds in a compulsive frenzy.

“Compulsion” or “compulsive behavior” refers to something done for the express purpose (conscious or not) of reducing anxiety. People drink, use drugs, go on the Internet, or shop compulsively in order to reduce anxiety. The degree to which one succumbs to compulsive behavior is the degree to which one has replaced the positive pursuit of chosen, rational values with the instant gratification motivation of simply feeling less anxious — for the moment.

One of the ways anxious people gain reassurance that they’re OK is to participate in something else that everyone else seems to be doing. “If they’re doing it, then I’m part of the pack. That means I’m OK.” This explains the contradiction between mass numbers of people voting for politicians who repeatedly say business and profits are immoral, while then turning around and feeding those profits even in the midst of a recession that drags on and on.

Perhaps on some level many people sense that on our current course, material prosperity and economic growth as generations of Americans and Westerners have known it, are fading away. This holiday rush is one last — usually unaffordable — compulsion to get it while you can.

To many people, the obligation and necessity of thinking objectively — by oneself, in one’s own mind — is frightful and burdensome. They’d just rather not. “Pile the credit card up with bills I don’t have the ability to pay even a year from now, when I go on the next frenzy? Not a problem. Someone will be there to take care of it.” Someone is never concretely identified. That’s the whole point. That’s the reassurance of living by the mob, and for the mob. It erases the requirement of personal responsibility — or at least, many people think it does.


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