Science explains why Americans love Black Friday

November 19, 2012
November 19, 2012

This Friday, hoards of Americans will line up, and wait, and fight, and at way-too-early-for-a-day-off hours, to get discounts that studies have shown aren’t even the best deals around—and they’ll do it because of scientific reasons outside of their control. For those of us who refuse to partake in our most commercial of modern holiday traditions, this insanity may make no sense, especially with Cyber Monday three days later, and without the lines, the other humans, and the fighting. But, like we said, it’s nobody’s fault that humans get so geared-up for a day of torture. It’s a science thing. We like the waiting, and the fighting, and especially the coupons. Here’s the latest research:

Coupons Relax Us, Make Us Happy

For all the stress of the waiting, the Black Friday deals have a physical—and positive—effect on our brain. In the age of the smartphone, retailers lure customers with mobile coupons to get cell-phone shoppers to buy at the store, rather than online. And so even if discounts will get deeper in-store or on Cyber Monday, Black Friday-specific coupons can offer an immediate sense of relaxation. All of which makes consumers happier, found a recent Claremont University study.

Measuring the oxytocin levels of a group of female shoppers after giving them a coupon,  neurologist Dr. Paul Zak found that the deal increased this hormone’s levels in some shoppers. As this hormone (not to be confused with Oxycontin) has been linked to feelings of love and trust, Dr. Zak concluded that the positive mental reaction to it has become one of the reasons we love coupons so much. We view it as a social gesture, he says. “We’re so engrained to being social creatures that even receiving a coupon online is viewed by the brain as a social experience,” Zak says. “We’re building a relationship with an online shopping site like it’s a personal relationship.” The same study also found the coupon reduced stress and increased happiness in some participants. Ergo, on Black Friday, the biggest coupon day of the year must make this hormone go wild in some shoppers’ brains, making it a very relaxing and lovely experience.

Line Waiting: Ritual, Not Pain

Like we said, Black Friday doesn’t always offer the best deals of the season, yet the masses still do it. Like the Apple fanboy line, the loyalty has to do with the tradition behind Black Friday, found a study out of Winthrop University. Here’s the upshot (in a wonderful study write-up that makes our subjects sound like meerkats heading to the deep-discount watering hole): “Qualitative data from 38 interviews indicated that Black Friday shopping activities constitute a collective consumption ritual that is practiced and shared by multiple generations of female family members and close friends,” write the authors. Unbelievable to most people who find waiting in line torturous, these people like it. They even look forward to it. “For the person who’s been doing this for decades, this is as much of their Thanksgiving tradition as having turkey,” researcher Jane Boyd Thomas said. “That’s why they’re going to endure lines and probably even thrive in the lines.” Thrive meaning what, exactly, we’re not so sure.

The Possibility of Fighting Over Goods Is Exciting

Some people delight over the idea of fighting over the last Nintendo Wii, or whatever the item of the year happens to be. This study found that “perceived competition … creates positive emotions and induces hedonic shopping value.” Black Friday creates that kind of “perceived competition” in that it’s not just a shopping day with a bunch of people. It’s a shopping day with a bunch of people where discounts don’t last and discounted products are scarce. “At certain levels, consumers enjoy arousal and challenges during the shopping process,” researcher Sang-Eun Byun told The Washington Post‘s Olga Khazan. “They enjoy something that’s harder to get, and it makes them feel playful and excited.” Given that bit of science, it’s no wonder that shoppers have acted quite aggressive in recent years, as this Christian Science Monitor article notes.

The people who choose to partake in Black Friday, will likely associate many of its aspects with positive feelings. In fact, the day doesn’t evoke angry or related emotions for many of its participants, found an study from Eastern Illinois University. The researchers observed consumer behaviors and emotions on that day and, as you can see below, calmness, happiness, and courteousness ranked higher than anger and anxiety.

The people drawn to Black Friday do it because it makes them feel good for reasons beyond their control. It might not appeal to your particular sensibilities because your insides are wired differently. But this is how these people want to spend their days off: because it makes them happy. In which case, enjoy your shopping hell.

This originally appeared on The Atlantic Wire. Also on our sister site:

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