Black Friday as a Consumerist Psychological Phenomenon

Before we approach the Black Friday as a consumeristic psychological phenomenon we should first have a short view over the history of consumerism.

By one of the definitions, consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in a constantly increasing manner.

The Industrial Revolution

Everything had begun with the First Industrial Revolution that has taken its place in Europe and the United States starting from 1760. It lasted to sometime between 1820 and 1840. Mainly, the nature of the revolution implied the transition from the hand to machine production methods. This core feature was followed by a whole new set of chemical and iron production processes, the increased usage of water and steam power and the rise of the mechanized factory system. With its arrival, the Industrial Revolution brought unexpected growth of population in the amounts that couldn’t even be dreamt of.

Mass production

assembly line for car production

Famous Assembly Line

However, the peak of this civilizational creation happened in the 20th century with mass production.

Differently called flow or continuous production, this production was based on producing the extremely large amounts of products via assembly lines that allowed sending of partially complete products to workers assigned to fulfill a specialized step rather than to finish the whole product on their own.

The term “Mass Production” was popularized by an article in Encyclopedia Britannica which was written in correspondence with the Ford Motor Company. Yet the New York Times was the first magazine to use this term in the title of an article but still not the one to be held responsible for its popularization.

In upcoming times, the mass production has exceeded the needs of consumers which led to the financial crises. Supply of products was way ahead of the demands for them which caused an avalanche of advertising in service of manipulating the behavior of consumers.  In 1899 the book called ‘The Theory of the Leisure class examined the widespread values and economic institutions emerging along with the widespread “leisure time” at the beginning of the 20th century. It explains the spending habits of so-called ‘Leisure class’ pointing out that they are mostly based on emotions poked by their wishes to display status rather than the goals to achieve some kind of functionality or usefulness. Explained in a more simple manner, mass production which had led to consumerism turned an irrational need for fulfillment into the foundation of the modern economy.

Definitions of Consumerism

Nature of consumerism

Buy, Buy and Buy

Before we continue to the core of the article we will mention a few more definitions on consumerism that were made from the different perspectives that even conflict with each other.

One set of definitions is based on the optimistic assumption that the true goal of consumerism is to support consumers.

Optimistic Definitions

  • Consumerism is the concept founded on the idea that the core of the honest market is the creation of informed consumers that are able to bring the right decisions for their welfare.
  • Consumerism is the implementation of responsibilities that market has towards the consumers such as quality and safety standards.
  • In some definitions, it is even mentioned that consumerism is a way that leads to social justice through the market.

Another set is created by the opposite attitude which is founded on arguments that show how consumerism destroys the spiritual values and healthy lifestyle.

Negative Definitions

  • Consumerism is selfish and frivolous stashing of products. In this context, the consumeristic phenomenon is the opposition to a healthy and simple lifestyle.
  • Consumerism is the market force that is destroying society and individuality. Most of the time it is closely associated with the globalization and because of that fact it is a usual target of anti-globalization campaigns.

Black Friday as a Psychological Phenomenon

Maybe mass psychology is in genes.

Blame the genes

We have already established that the mass production which had led to consumerism created the market that relies on consumers irrational spending. And we most certainly can’t argue about the fact that Black Friday is the best example of both mass and irrational. Of course, sales are great and offerings go incredibly low, but what about stampedes? What about fatal accidents? Fightings and shopliftings? Should we remind ourselves that all those people were alive years before without having the targeted products in their possessions? Nevertheless, many individuals merged into the raging crowd behave just like their whole life depends on that one purchase. Overspendings are also usual features displayed by the consumers during the shopping day. They gathered with the attention to buy cheap but before they knew it their pockets were empty and turned outside. Here, a whole array of psychological factors come into play.

The Mass Effect

  • The loss of responsibility that occurs through merging with a crowd. That may be a good explanation for aggressive behavior. Assimilation allows the individual to feel like there is no way to be singled out and punished. “The crowd did it, not me.” Also, an individual might create the illusion that the weight of his normally unacceptable deeds shares between the rest of the crowd members and loses its significance. That could be taken as an explanation for the Black Friday stampedes filled with pushing, punching, and fighting. Short term abandoning of the basic ethical and decency norms don’t seem so compromising while being a drop in the sea.
  • Fear of singling out. This fear doesn’t necessarily have to be triggered by the wish to evade punishment or something negative at all. It can point out that the person fears the lack of ability needed for fulfilling other people expectations that usually appear towards those that are, for some reasons, different and easily noticeable. This statement, set deeply in the subconscious, could even be the reason why some people feel obligated to shop and use discounts. Never mind the fact that nobody will be put on the middle of the stage in front of the rest of the world and asked: “Why didn’t you go shopping on Black Friday and use all those discounts?” Here, the word is about deep socialized psychological instincts carved in the places of our minds that we cannot directly approach.
  • Go with the flow. Becoming one with the crowd also has its nice moments. The feelings of strength and acceptance are easily achievable. Almost nothing seems hard or impossible when you have a whole army to back you up.

Next psychological feature of the Black Friday phenomenon deeply related to mob psychology is “The Caveman tale” or “The Caveman Theory”.

The Caveman Theory

Animated Cave People

Stone Age People

This theory, or, how some like to call it, the tale of homo sapiens evolution, assumes that the roots of crowd psychology go deep in the past all the way to the stone age. Back then, when we were naked and afraid, we had to stick together in order to survive. Alone, in the jungles full of mighty beasts, a human being wouldn’t stand a chance against nature. Tigers with giant fangs and claws, bears, snakes, spiders, you name it… Fortunately, humans weren’t only poor with strength. They were rich with intellect. And one of the first manifestations of that kind of wealth was to team up into hordes. When ones turn into many weak transforms into strong. A strength is a valuable attribute to possess in this world. Both flora and fauna are based on fighting for domination through physical elimination of the being that poses a threat or food. And although that fact is not so noticeable now when we live in towns and drive on concrete, back then it was the usual every day. Of course, to be a part of a horde didn’t just mean to share the burdens of the fight for survival. It meant accepting new responsibilities and adjusting to the established expectations of the group.

The Buffalo Hunt

How would you hunt this smiling fellow?

Smiling Buffalo

Let’s take buffalo hunting for example. Every hunter was assigned with a duty. Some of them were obligated to dig a deep hole and mask it. Others were supposed to throw spears at a buffalo. And others had to take the role of bait and lure the animal into the whole, or net or whatever the trap was. The point is that the membership in the group had required individuals to adjust to horde requirements before it has given the privilege of greater strength and safety. Precisely this fact might be what our DNA sculpts deep into our subconscious which later triggers our mind to, despite all logic, chase the form of behavior that is practiced by a group. There is a possibility that the stone age committed instrumental conditioning on the human race strongly binding membership in a group with the notions of strength and dominant position towards reality.

The Caveman Theory doesn’t stop here.

It goes way deeper and explains the whole economy through the context of stone age psychology and human biology.

Human Beings Value Rarity

The indisputable fact is that difference triggers the attention of the human brain. You are instantly going to notice the island in the middle of the ocean or the lake in the middle of the desert. Tree in a forest is just another tree in the forest. It doesn’t really matter if the object of our attention brings some usefulness or not. What matters is the break of monotony that brings the thrill of expectations. This, at first sight, naive facts, actually explain the foundations of consumerism functionality.

Greed is the New Need

Marketers create thousands of new variations of the old products every day entirely relying on a distinction to trigger the attention of consumers. The question of a true need is a relative matter. A human is capable of surviving in the cave otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article. We don’t really need phones, TVs, motivational books, pizzas with 20 kinds of cheese… But, since we have dominated nature to the point where we are not constantly pressured by fighting for survival, the luxury of exchanging need with hedonistic greed, has taken the primary place in our lives. Greed has no objective existence bases as the need for water or food or similar which makes it way easier to manipulate. Better, faster, stronger, with more taste… New features are not a necessity. Marketers only need that right trigger to activate the thrill strong enough to push consumer for committing a purchase. Precisely this is the reason why some people believe that the modern economy has glass legs. A week without a regular supply of water and the developed world would be tearing apart. Greed would be forgotten in front of the real need of the organism to be supplied with his surviving fuels. The biggest markets would be demolished.

Difference is a Reference


Line of pens.

The ability to observe difference was a part of our biological survival kit. Let’s have some excitement with cave people. Early in the morning, a horde had established a little settlement at the top of the hill. A hunting party was sent to acquire food. They went deep inside the forest chasing the footprints of big Mamut. Before noon, the hunters have killed their future meal. After chopping eatable parts of their pray they decided to take a break. They were sitting on the ground surrounded by trees and bushes. There is no wind. Everything is perfectly still. But… At some time, staring into the bushes, a leader notices a short shake of a single leaf. He roars throwing his spear at the bush. Without thinking, his party members do the same. The giant tiger jumps out and seconds later drops on the ground. His body stabbed with spears is laying in the dirt while the animal is breading heavily. The day is saved and everyone is coming home to their families with lots of meat. Happy End was achieved through two circumstances:

  • The notice of the difference. If the leader hasn’t noticed that leaf some of them, maybe all, would be dead. Back then, even the smallest difference could be the reference for the specific type of action that could decide between life and death.
  • The mass acceptance of behavior without previous thinking is the second factor that saved the day. In the beginning, there just wasn’t enough time to think. Could you imagine a philosopher seeking for causes while the tiger is lurking and preparing to attack? The better question is, could you imagine him to survive? Origin times required impulses and intuition to play the main role. “Why would I be obligated to imitate that kind of behavior and throw a spear at the bush that does me no harm?”, a philosopher would ask and seconds later got eaten. Almost every action was in the service of survival which is the reason why instead of analysis, other members of the horde had an instant assumption that, in order to survive, they must follow the leader. There was usefulness in following. Merging. And the stone age was a long period. That is the reason why there is a large chance that our subconscious so easily pushes as to merge with the crowd.

Remember that, after all, theories are called theories for a reason. We can argue about everything, but the fact is that our past is the foundation of current reality in which we live. And the foundations are often places that can give us answers to many questions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *