Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Psychology of Black Friday: More Than Just Good Deals

It’s the Black Friday weekend! High Streets and online retail sites are bustling with traffic as elated shoppers head out (or online) to snap up the best deals. Billions are spent during this period each year. There certainly are some good deals, but let's examine some of the possible psychological factors pushing people towards increasing their spending behaviour for such sales.

1.     Continuous Advertising: Priming Potential Shoppers
We’ve been inundated by information telling us Black Friday is coming. Posters on shop fronts, banners all over online retail sites and the countless advertisement emails from all sorts of companies – even the Post Office.
Figure 1. Screen grab of email advertisements from the UK Post Office.

The idea of Black Friday shopping is simply everywhere in our environment. Research has shown that our behaviour can potentially be altered by information of any sort that we obtain from our environment, both consciously and subconsciously (Bargh, 2006). In other words, our behaviour can be altered through priming and suggestion. One interesting study providing proof of this was conducted by Strahan, Spencer and Zanna (2002). In the study, they showed that subliminally priming people who were thirsty to concepts of thirst through words presented to them during a lexical decision task made them drink significantly more water after a ‘taste test’ than people who were thirsty and had not been primed (Strahan, Spencer & Zanna, 2002). This provided evidence that priming and suggestion could indeed influence one's behaviour.
Figure 2. Results from Strahan, Spencer and Zanna (2002).
Drawing an analogy from the study by Strahan, Spencer and Zanna (2002), those of us who have had thoughts of buying something are like the thirsty people in the study, and seeing the advertisements primes us and pushes us towards making those purchases. 

2.     Framing of Deals Capitalises on Consumers' Loss Aversion.
The concept of Black Friday sales inherently suggests that the deals are exclusive and available for a limited time only. Signage in shops reminds shoppers that ‘once it’s gone, it’s gone’. Online, prominent timers count down till the end of the sale and companies send emails urging shoppers not to miss out.
Figure 3. Example of Black Friday advertisements with countdown timers or elements reminding shoppers it is their 'last chance'.
The constant references to ‘time left’, deals ‘running out’, and ‘missing out’ reframes our shopping experience from ‘gaining something new’ to ‘losing out on this great deal’. It is probable that some of us have made impulse purchases due to this ‘fear of missing out’. 

From a psychological perspective, it could possibly be due to people being averse to losses. Kahneman and Tversky (1979) famously suggested that people are loss averse in general, and demonstrated that people become more risk seeking when a scenario is presented in a negative frame (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). Applying these research findings on loss aversion, it is plausible that the way deals are presented on Black Friday makes people more likely to take risks in purchasing items when they are not certain if they really want it, as they would rather risk it than lose out.

3.     Making Black Friday Shopping the 'Thing' - Social Proofing.
Each year, Black Friday produces a considerable amount of hype. Anticipation of Black Friday sales starts to build up days and weeks before the sales actually begin. Everyone talks about it – at every lecture and in every café, people share about the great deals that are available on Black Friday. In the midst of the hype each year, we, the consumers, have become the perfect social proof for those around us to shop on Black Friday. Cialdini (2009) suggests that our behaviours are influenced by social proof; we perceive the appropriateness of behaviours relative to how common the behaviour is. The more people jump onboard the bandwagon, the stronger the social proof for shopping on Black Friday. Perhaps this could explain why revenue from Black Friday sales (in the US and UK at lest) has constantly increased in the past few years despite less-than-stellar economic outlook across the globe. With each passing year, social proof for shopping on Black Friday just gets stronger, enticing more people to join in.

Just a little extra: Cultural Factors in Behaviour Change?
Across the globe in China, Alibaba (something like China's version of Amazon) launched a Singles' Day Sales event in 2009. Like Black Friday, it has gained traction and increased in popularity within China and the surrounding region. In recent years, Singles' Day in China has surpassed Black Friday as the world's biggest shopping event by a mile. To put this in context, in 2015, the sales from websites owned by Alibaba (something like China's version of Amazon) alone amounted to more than triple that of the total sales in the U.S. for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. 
Figure 4. Graph comparing Singles' Day and Black Friday merchandise sale statistics. Image retrieved from Forbes at
This year, Alibaba's sites had a revenue of a record US$18.7 billion in the 24 hour span. While this incredible phenomenon has been attributed to commercial genius, economic and sociocultural factors, I cannot help but wonder if psychological factors have played a role.

China, where Singles' Day Sales are held, is known to be a collectivist culture while western countries like the U.S. and the United Kingdom, where Black Friday Sales are popular, are known to be more individualistic. A meta-analysis of studies on conformity to social norms across different cultures has shown that people from collectivist cultures are more susceptible to social influence and thus likelier to conform to social norms (Bond & Smith, 1996). Considering that the Singles' Day Sales has gained so much traction in China, there is a good chance that there is a growing amount of social influence and pressure that encourages shopping during the Singles' Day Sales. While it would be immensely difficult to ascertain the factors contributing to the incredible rate of increase in Singles' Day Sales volume, I would hazard a guess that it could partly be due to social influence pushing a greater number of consumers in China to try and catch the best deals available on  November 11 each year!

Peng Ning TAN

Bargh, J. (2006). What have we been priming all these years? On the development, mechanisms, and ecology of nonconscious social behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 147-168.
Bond, R., & Smith, P. B. (1996). Culture and Conformity: A meta-anaylsis of studies using Asch's (1952b - 1956) line judgment task. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 111-137.
Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and Practice. Boston: Pearson Education.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect Theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263-291.
Strahan, E. J., Spencer, S. J., & Zanna, M. P. (2002). Subliminal priming and persuasion: Striking while the iron is hot. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 556-568.
Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science, 211, 453-458.

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