Black Friday: Mob Psychology? (DE Wave)

I received an email from a reader who says that she doesn’t get the idea of gift-giving for the sake of gift-giving or to not look bad in front of others. She’s referring to Black Friday (just a couple of weeks away!). She goes on to say that people should give gifts any time simply because they want to, not because they have to.

What’s fascinating to me is the relatively recent popularity of the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy known as Black Friday. As best as I can tell, it’s mob psychology fueled by relentless media bombardment. For many, it’s not really about enjoying the exchange of gifts. It’s more of a frenetic, compulsive buying spree for its own sake. It’s like the herd acting in unison: “Everyone else is doing it.”

I no longer exchange Christmas gifts, not because I’m against them in principle, but simply because my loved ones and I already have what we need. In fact, I don’t hesitate to buy gifts for friends throughout the year. But if I still did Christmas shopping, I wouldn’t go out with the mobs. I’d try to thoughtfully select things throughout the year, in as much peace and quiet as possible. Of course, Christmas shopping in a busy store can be festive and fun, but why deliberately seek out the hysteria and traffic jams?

On one level, it’s surprising to see this compulsion for holiday shopping rise in our current era of anti-business sentiment and strident anti-capitalism – the most profound since the founding of the United States. Then people mob the malls and the stores to seek out the fruits of whatever capitalism that still remains. It seems like a contradiction.

But there might be an explanation. Most children are raised to relate to others in terms of “the group.” Most parents motivate their children with things like, “Don’t do that. Nobody will like you.” Most schools educate kids in groups. They’re taught to think in a classroom format, rather than thinking for themselves as individuals. “What others think of me” is an underlying trend in our culture. And one instance of this is Black Friday, where people gather together in packs – often camping out in the middle of the night – to engage in a compulsive frenzy. Sure, there are always those who buck those trends, but the trends are obviously still there.

A compulsion refers to something done for the express purpose (conscious or not) of reducing anxiety. People drink, use drugs, go on the Internet, eat, gamble or shop compulsively in order to reduce anxiety. The degree to which one succumbs to that behavior is the degree to which one has replaced the pursuit of positive, rational values with the instant gratification of feeling less anxious, at least for the moment. People are reassured that this is OK because it’s what everyone else is doing. This explains the contradiction suggested by mass numbers of people voting for politicians (of both parties) who say business and profits are immoral, and then turning around and feeding those profits in the midst of a recession that drags on and on.

Perhaps on some level people sense that, on our current course, material prosperity and economic growth are fading away, and the holiday rush is one last, usually unaffordable, way to “get it while you can.” That’s just conjecture, of course, but to many people, the obligation to think objectively, with one’s own mind, is burdensome. They’d just rather not. “Pile the credit cards up with bills I can’t pay. Not a problem: Someone will care of it.” Sadly, that “someone” is never quite defined.

No, I’m not the Grinch, and I love the holidays and shopping as much as anybody, especially with all the unique retailers here at the beach. But I also believe that the false security of living by and for the mob erases the requirement for personal responsibility. Why can’t the fun and excitement of holiday shopping include rational thinking and spending within our means? I’m not sure that it can, but I want to believe that it could.