The Mob Psychology of Black Friday

With the spectre of the Black Friday Christmas shopping on the horizon, I always receive reader emails saying that they don’t get the idea of gift giving for the sake of gift giving. They all make reference to the midnight frenzy of Black Friday. Several readers say that people should give gifts simply because they want to; not because they have to.

The popularity of the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping phenomenon known as Black Friday seems to be nothing more than mob psychology fueled by relentless media bombardment. For some, 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.”

Now don’t get me wrong: I love commerce and trade, and I admire all entrepreneurs, including those in retail. And that goes double for the brave businesspeople who operate stores here in our seasonal resort. But I stopped exchanging gifts a long time ago, not because I’m against it, but simply because my loved ones and I already have what we need. In fact, I regularly 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. But let’s face it: Christmas shopping in a busy store can be festive and fun, and if traffic jams and flying elbows are part of your season, then go for it.

On one level, it’s surprising to see this compulsion for holiday shopping escalate in our current era of anti-business sentiment and strident anti-capitalism – the most profound since the founding of the United States. It seems to me like a contradiction when people mob the malls and the stores to enjoy the fruits of the very capitalism they vilify.

But there might be an explanation. As kids, many of us were 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.” Schools educate kids in groups; thinking in a classroom format rather than thinking for themselves as individuals. “What others think of me” is an ever-present trend in our culture. And one example 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 the trends, but the trends are 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 who vote for politicians (of both parties) who spout-off that business and profits are immoral, and the turn around and feed those profits en masse. Still a contradiction, at least to me.

Maybe 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, but to many people, the obligation to think objectively 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 importance of personal responsibility. Can the excitement of holiday shopping include rational thinking and spending within our means? I’m not sure, but I want to believe that it could.



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