The Psychology behind Black Friday: Forget Grandma’s cornbread stuffing– it’s not Thanksgiving without Black Friday!


By Angela Escobar
Retailers go out of their way to make the Friday after Thanksgiving a big deal.  Some are going as far as opening their doors at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving.  Most open at midnight.  They entice customers with free pastries and coffee, giveaways and raffles, games for the kids, claiming the lowest prices of the year, and by promising to match any competitor’s price.  However, there has been recent research which shows that “Black Friday sales don’t always offer the best prices” (Integer, 2012).  In fact, Black Friday is not all about bargains and deals. The motivation to shop on Black Friday has “deep roots in consumer psychology” (Iyer, 2013).  Retailers make it their business to know all the tricks of the trade and are just waiting to take “full advantage of the gullible human mind” (Iyer, 2013). 
Holiday shopping can be emotional.  The holidays are emotional times for most people.  Times for family get-togethers and reunions.  Times for enjoying a good meal at the table, surrounded by those you love and who love you.  Thanksgiving is no exception.  Being around family reminds them of how many gifts they’ll need to buy for the quickly-approaching Christmas season.  This means they’ll need to be looking out for the best deals they can get in order to save the most money.  People who are desperate for a good deal may be “less rational” according to Kenneth Manning, a professor of marketing at Colorado State University (Pappas, 2010).  Plus, if you have a bad experience with family members who always tend to get on your nerves, what’s better therapy than a little shopping?  Black Friday seems to come at just the right time. 

Limited time only! 

This deal won’t last forever! 

While supplies last! 

Come and get in on the savings before time runs out!


Creating a sense of scarcity and urgency makes us want to buy more now.  Stores love to claim that their supplies won’t last, making us feel as if we need to get it now else we will never be able to get our hands on it. Gad Saad , professor of marketing at Concordia University in Montreal and author of “The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption” (Psychology Press, 2007) and “The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature” (Prometheus Books, 2011), has found evidence that “men and women navigate shopping situations in ways consistent with the hunting and gathering behaviors of our savannah ancestors” (Pappas, 2010).  Saad claims that huge holiday sales events such as Black Friday could be “playing on innate mechanisms like the desire to hoard resources” (Pappas, 2010).  Saad states that people respond to the stimulus by hoarding and buying much more than they originally intended.  This “time pressure” can also fool us into buying items that we don’t need.  We start asking ourselves: “What if I need this later.  I won’t be able to get it at this awesome price for sure.  I’d better just get it now!”  We end up walking out of that store with stuff we might or might never need in the future. 
Environmental cues make us want to spend more than we intend to and products we never intended to buy in the first place Once a store has sucked you in through its doors, there are several tricks that a retailer can pull to try to keep you in there as long as possible. Lisa Cavanaugh is a consumer psychologist at the University of Southern California, and she makes it her business to research holiday shopping.  According to Cavanaugh, retail stores really put in the effort to create just the right holiday mood for their shoppers.  Slow- tempo music encourages people to browse.  Holiday songs put people in the holiday spirit.  A study from the Journal of Consumer Research found that in general, feelings of positivity make products seem a more appealing to people.  By modifying the environment to create a certain mood, retailers can influence the type of products shoppers want to buy.  For example, feelings of pride can make people want to buy “personal adornment products like clothes, shoes and watches” (Pappas, 2010).  Feelings of contentment make people want to buy products for their house such as furniture and appliances.
Being part of the excitement gives us an adrenaline rush.  If everyone is in line outside of a store, waiting for the doors to open, it must be something spectacular…right?  It’s human nature to want to be where things are happening.  It’s human nature to want what everyone else wants and has.  We feel we have to be where the action is.  Even if you have no plans on buying anything, you still want to browse “just in case” you find something that’s too incredible a deal to pass up.  Plus, the competition to get the best deal, to have purchased the same thing as someone else has for the better price, gives us an ego boost.  After all, no one likes to lose!  We get a rush when we beat the system to save money (Iyer, 2013).  We want to feel as if we got the best out of the retailer.  We want to believe that the retailer basically paid us to shop at their store instead of the other way around. 
Getting a “great deal” makes us feel great.  When people get a big enough discount, they get “charged up”.  Where does this “charged up” feeling come from?  Why are discounts so addictive?  According to Peter Darke, Marketing professor at York University in Toronto, “there’s some evidence to suggest that it reflects back on them as a sort of rational, good, effective, skilled shopper” (Pappas, 2010).  That “great feeling” people get when they have purchased items which are discounted, marked as the “lowest prices of the season”, or are “slashed for quick sale” comes from “people’s perception that they’d been treated fairly, and people’s self-evaluation” (Pappas, 2010).     
For some, it’s about ritual and tradition.  Believe it or not, some families and groups of friends come together to spend their Thanksgiving Day planning and preparing for Black Friday.  And it’s not Thanksgiving without Black Friday for these guys.  For them, it’s about tradition and having a great time together, hunting down great deals and getting their holiday shopping done all at once, in one day. 
Why is the psychology behind Black Friday important?
Simple.  Nobody cares about your money more than you do.  Even if you enjoy spending lots of money on Black Friday, you always want to have the upper-hand in the game of consumer psychology.  Don’t let retailers prey on your weaknesses.  Always be in the know. 
What can I do to not get caught up in the rush?
(List by Suba Iyer of
If your motivation is time pressure, make a list of items you really want/need well ahead of time. Research the options for each of your items well before you see the sale flyer and note down the non-sale price for each of your options. This will give you a sanity check on whether you are getting a deal. Check out the leaked ads (you can find those in many deal forums) so that you will have some time to think about it. Most of the time you will find out that you can get the product for a good price throughout the year and not just on Black Friday.
If your motivation is scarcity, prepare your mind to go home empty-handed if the product you want is sold out.
If your motivation is social proof, remember that you didn’t save any money if you wouldn’t have bought the item at full price.
If your motivation is competition, you might want to evaluate who you are trying to please. This motivation could very well push you into keeping up with the Joneses and losing a lot more money. No one cares about your money more than you do and you do not have to prove to anyone how well you did. Be honest with yourself. Your future will thank you.
If your motivation is making a ritual out of Black Friday shopping, make a list prior to Thanksgiving Day; enjoy the shopping, make memories, but stick to the list.
Every avid Black Friday shopper should ask themselves what their motivation to shop is. Having a list, a budget to go along with it and sticking to the list will help curb unnecessary spending and regret.

Let us know about your Black Friday experience this year for next year’s Black Friday article!

Sources: (2012, November 28). The psychology behind Thanksgiving weekend shopping. Retrieved from

Pappas, S. (2010, November 24). Black Friday psychology: Why we go mad for deals. Retrieved from

Iyer, S. (2013). Psychology of Black Friday: Motivation behind the pursuit of deals. Because Money Matters, Retrieved from

Photo credits:

Top photo:

Second photo: Mathew Staver, Bloomberg

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