The Psychology Behind Black Friday

The Psychology Behind Black Friday

Black Friday - the long awaited retail day of the year. But what is it that drives shoppers to make such irrational and impulse purchase decisions? Find out!

Forget the first time Christmas carols start playing in stores. If you work in retail, you know that the true start of the holiday season is Black Friday...

For many, the words Black Friday conjure up images of people queuing outside stores and flooding in, crushing everything and everyone in their way. They ferociously grab things, sometimes fighting other deal hunters for whatever discount might be on hand. 

This is a modern-day battle ground where ordinary people seem to descend into savagery amidst an apparent paradise of bargains and sales!

What is it about Black Friday consumerism that has us reaching for wallets, and convincing ourselves to buy products we don’t really need? How can Black Friday turn even the smartest of shoppers into shopaholics, and turn retail crowds into angry, even deadly mobs?

A lot of it has to do with behavioural science: Specifically, the psychology of spending, and how stores persuade you to buy and buy more. Here's an example of what happens…

FOMO: The Fear of Missing Out

All that media attention during the lead up to Black Friday affects your brain, and makes you want to go shopping, even if you don't have any particular purchase in mind. That's because it seems like everyone else is out there grabbing a great deal, which can trigger FOMO, aka the Fear Of Missing Out.

Research shows that the fear of missing out plays a big role in how we make our decisions. In the short term, we tend to regret actions which lead to bad outcomes. And in the long term, we often regret the things we didn’t do. FOMO can capture your brain's attention and make it hard to think about anything else. So, you'll naturally become more preoccupied with shopping. 

Research also shows that social media use can increase FOMO. Seeing your friends' new purchases on their Instagram stories can make you more likely to want to shop, or seeing them on holiday enjoying themselves will make you more likely to book a trip away. 

Big brands are making the most of this fact and using FOMO to encourage you to make purchases on Black Friday. 

Have you ever been online shopping and a little notification pops up saying “400 others are looking at this product right now”? Or “this item was purchased 120 times in the last 24 hours”? This is a top tactic for increasing FOMO. We read this and immediately think we should also follow the crowd and purchase the product, without any real awareness of whether this statement is even true. 

Another way that marketers harness FOMO on Black Friday is by stating that deals are ‘limited’. Many campaigns will put a time limit on their deals - look out for promotions that say ‘one day only’ or ‘hurry before all stock sells out’. This works effectively at creating a sense of urgency in our brains and we act quickly to get a bargain.

Finally, researchers have discovered that most people feel the most FOMO at the end of the day and at the end of the week. So, since Black Friday is, obviously, on a Friday, your sense of FOMO might feel especially strong. 

It is a day that is very strategically positioned because it’s also the last payday before Christmas for many people, meaning they are more likely to spend money due to having more disposable income straight after being paid, before any monthly expenses have been taken out. 

Black Friday can Change Brain Chemistry

Neuropsychology shows us that events like Black Friday have interesting effects on our brain chemistry. When we dive in and grab that last big flat screen TV, our pleasure hormone dopamine levels leap up. The rush lights up the reward centre of our brains making us feel great! 

However, too much dopamine, without the release of other chemicals like serotonin to balance it, isn’t good for us. In fact, dopamine-surging activities have been seen to be contributing factors in the building of addictions such as gambling.

brain scan showing active parts of the brain when making purchases

The mega-discounts you'll find on Black Friday also make it harder to think twice about your purchases. Words like ‘Sale’ and ‘Save’ can trigger activity in the natural reward systems in our brain. And when those reward centres come alive, the parts of your brain that would naturally cause you to stop and consider your options, in other words, make you think about whether you really need something, become less active.

Social Psychology and Black Friday

Anti-social behaviour in stores on Black Friday is something which regularly makes the headlines, with shoppers queuing and causing chaos in stores, affecting security. 

There are several social psychology theories that help to explain why intelligent human beings suddenly behave antisocially on Black Friday.

For example, some shoppers become aggressive to a point of vandalising property or literally running over others. Science tells us that when we are part of a large group, we are less likely to moderate our behaviour (think fanatical football fans, chanting the most abusive diatribes). This is because when ‘hidden’ in a large group, we feel less identifiable.

Adding to this, research shows that higher levels of both positive and negative emotion impact our behaviour. For example, we might happily dance in a crowd despite usually being too shy to dance. It has been shown that witnessing antisocial behaviour, especially within a large crowd, increases the chance we’ll join in. 

Additionally, research shows that the type of crowd can influence behaviour. Essentially, Black Friday shoppers are an Acquisitive Mob: A large group of people fighting over limited resources.

In recent years, many companies have used different techniques to try and calm the madness that Black Friday brings, with the most popular solution being to stretch the period from one day to as much as a whole week before actual Black Friday. This relieves some of the pressure from retail stores with an influx of customers on one day or from websites that may crash with too much traffic.

Behavioural Science Ways to Shop Smarter This Black Friday

So how do you keep ‘any remaining money you may have’ safe this Black Friday?

1. Decide what you really need (not just want) in advance

Getting caught up in the rush of Black Friday can mean you'll make purchases you wouldn't have made otherwise. By choosing beforehand what you need to buy, you reduce the likelihood of making unnecessary impulse purchases. 

Black Friday can be a good time to get some bargains before Christmas so have a search around for the places that are doing genuine sales on the items you wish to purchase.

2. See if the sale is truly good value, as opposed to just looking special

I'll let you in on a little secret: some retailers raise their prices before Black Friday, to make their special offers and discounts look like exceptionally good value on the day itself. 

Pay attention to the price of the item you want before Black Friday!

Do a bit of research, how much is the item normally available for from other sources? Also, be prepared to wait as you might find as good a deal after Black Friday and be able to come to a more reasoned (and often financially more astute) purchasing decision later.

3. Become aware of mob mentality

Simply joining in the Black Friday furore can make you more aggressive that you might normally be, so you’ll need to reign yourself in. And if you know you tend to get swept up in the collective fervour of crowds, consider shopping online, the next day, or later during the day, when stores tend to be less busy.

Go Somewhere Else!

One of the best ways to avoid the risk of impulse shopping on Black Friday, is simply to not shop. Make other plans for the day. For example, visit friends and combat the temptations ‘as a team’. 

The important thing is to just take the option of Black Friday shopping off the table. Because behavioural science says that when left to your own devices, you’re going to be tempted to spend.

P.S. If you’re a retailer or brand, keep reading…

Adcock Solutions have been improving the marketing communications of leading brands and retailers for 25 years, offering Behavioural Science insights and expertise that improves product visibility, appeal, engagement, and sales. We help put an end to spray and pray marketing and clients struggling to understand what customers really want.

If you’re still debating your Black Friday tactics, run them by our experts to find out how effective they truly will be!

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About Phillip Adcock

My name is Phillip Adcock: I have more than 30 years of human behavioural research and analysis, and have developed a unique ability to identify what it is that makes people psychologically and physiologically 'tick'.

Would you like to know more about how shoppers and consumers think? Download my FREE guide now. Alternatively, check out, where there are more FREE downloads available there. Or why not simply email me with what's on your mind?

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Phillip Adcock

Phillip Adcock CMRS
Psychology & Behaviour
Change Consultant

Phillips Signature

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