Black Friday appears even in the soup. Ever since the American consumer tradition crossed the Atlantic, shopping has become an imperative. And every year it becomes more aggressive. Discounts extend to more businesses. More Products. More publicity… A constant bombardment that has the potential to ensnare us.
Discounts that were once concentrated on the Friday after Thanksgiving to help businesses go from red to black digits – hence the name – now extend for nearly a month. A month in which we are bombarded with dizzying discounts with the aim of convincing us that these are the best offers of the year, unique and unrepeatable opportunities that we should not miss.
Regret, the emotion on which Black Friday makes leverage
That these times are not good is not a secret. Small merchants and even large brands have a compelling need to sell, and to do so, marketers play on two key emotions: regret and pride.
A classic study of Psychology showed that the fear of future regret influences the decisions we make. Regret is a complex emotion that can manifest both when we do something and when we refrain from doing it.
Interestingly, we tend to experience more short-term regret for things we did wrong, but long-term regret is more often tied to things we didn’t do, to omissions.
The anticipation of Black Friday with its brilliant discounts activates precisely the fear of regretting not buying and not taking advantage of the opportunity that – apparently – is offered to us. A hyper-connected world where we have the permanent feeling that we are missing something, feeds even more this fear of missing out on a good offer. Regret becomes a ghost that haunts us on these dates.
That early loss state pushes a lot of people to buy. Even if they don’t have any unmet needs, they just browse the stores to make sure they don’t miss anything. But that glance is often a trap because they end up buying things they don’t need simply because they find it hard to resist the mega-discounts that hit them everywhere.
We cannot forget that discounts activate the reward system of our brain. And when these centers are active, the parts of the brain dedicated to reflection and impulse control become less active. In other words, the brain begins to issue an order: spend, spend, spend… While it becomes more difficult to suppress that impulse and think twice before paying.
On the other hand, the Psychology of Black Friday plays with another emotion: pride. When we manage to catch a bargain, we flaunt it. The discount percentage becomes for bargain hunters the equivalent of the quarry for a hunter. They are proud of it because it shows their intelligence, quickness, or acumen.
If someone applauds them on top of that, they will be feeding that pride and it is more likely that the following year those people will come back for more offers on Black Friday, even if they do not need them. The behavior that has generated them emotional pleasure – the purchase – has been socially reinforced and validated. This ends up creating a snowball effect, so that those who are left out of this trend may feel excluded or marginalized. Not participating in the collective madness – widely accepted and normalized – also has a price.
To buy or not to buy? That is the question
Unless we are secluded in a Himalayan mountain, it is difficult to escape the consumerist influence of Black Friday. There is obviously nothing wrong with buying. We need certain things to live. And we must buy them at some point. The problem is not buying what we need, it is buying just for the act of buying, pushed by increasingly extensive, invasive and frankly tiresome advertising campaigns.
A study conducted at the University of Michigan found that shopping can strengthen our sense of personal control over the environment and alleviates feelings of sadness and anxiety. The act of buying is also often perceived as a personal achievement. Is that positive? Depends.
If we want to escape the effects of advertising, we must be able to unbind those emotions from the act of buying. When we buy what we need – plain and simple – we prevent our emotional brain from taking over every time it sees an offer. When we limit ourselves to buying what we need, we stop identifying with things, so that they do not add more value to us as people and, therefore, we do not need them to reinforce our identity.
Then we stop being manipulated and manipulable people. And the brilliant discounts of campaigns like Black Friday become a distant buzz that, even if we can’t turn it off, we can at least control.
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Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V. H. (1995) The experience of regret: What, when, and why. Psychological Review; 102(2): 379–395.
Janis, I. L., & Mann, L. (1977) Decision making: A psychological analysis of conflict, choice, and commitment. Free Press.