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

Can psychology explain why Black Friday leads to mayhem on the streets (and online)?

Black Friday is a sales event originating in the US and occurs on the day after Thanksgiving. Over the years, the event has popped up globally, such as in the UK and the numbers shopping online are close to those shopping in store.

Why is the event appealing and why has it led to so many videos classing it as the apocalypse and shoppers being deemed brainwashed zombies

Multiple psychological theories can explain how marketers, businesses and even online user experience designers can influence our perceptions to make it feel like you must grab the ‘best bargains’ during this time. A consistent theme that will be seen throughout the blog post is irrationality, a concept explained by Dan Ariely in his well-known book, Predictably Irrational [1]. During sales, people will make impulsive decisions that may not make financial and rational sense. There are multiple factors (some of which are explained below) at play that can encourage us to forgo effortful thinking and instead encourage the use of heuristics (shortcuts) to make our decisions [2].

1.  The mere exposure effect       

Often before, you are reminded through various adverts and conversations that Black Friday is soon, so don’t buy what you need yet – wait till the day! This year I’ve even noticed many stores had sales starting on the Monday before to increase anticipation through ‘teasing’ people with what is on offer. For instance, LookFantastic had a day during the week where people could get a certain percentage off of their basket dependant on what time it was. FeelUnique started a 15% off sale from the beginning of the week.

Feel Unique: I’ve lost count of the number of times I saw this image on the homepage last week

This advert was on FeelUnique's front page through the whole week which utilises the mere exposure effect proposed by Zajonc in 1968. This effect states that increased exposure frequency to something increases the chances of us liking it [4]. This was based on a study they did where participants were shown ten 'Chinese-like' characters, with some characters being shown more times than others. They were then told that the characters were adjectives and that they now had to guess if each had a positive or negative meaning. Each character was shown one by one which they had to rate the favourability of. They found that the more the character was shown to participant, the more positive their feelings were about it. 

Image result for zajonc chinese characters

The graph from the study shows a positive relationship between how often a character was shown and ratings it having a negative or positive meaning. Essentially, the more participants were exposed to a character, the more likely they were to rate them positively. This is also true of nonsense words, showing that exposure rather than types of characters (nonsense or not)  led to a better ratings. Being shown something more, regardless of it being known or not can increase chances of rating it positively. Interestingly enough, this still holds true even if you don't interact with products you're exposed to often which is one of the reasons why there isn't too big of a difference between online and in store sales during that time [5]. 

These findings have had implications for advertising and it can be seen why. The mere exposure effect influences and even alters our attitudes, which is the goal of advertisers [6]With regards to the Feel Unique advert shown above, its presence on the front page from the beginning of the week meant that the more someone visited the website throughout the week, the more they were reminded every time that there were great deals on offer. As a result consumers were more likely to develop a positive attitude towards the company and in turn buy from them. This also explains why retailers sent out multiple emails that week, to build positive perception towards them and their products. 

2. The availability heuristic [3]

A big part of building attitudes is memory, without it we wouldn't remember how we feel about brands and our what our previous experiences with them were like.

Information seen recently and often is more salient than others, which falls in line with the availability heuristic proposed by Kahenman [3].  It’s when people rely on immediate and recent examples to make a decision. It’s based on the idea that ‘if I can remember something easily, it must be important’. As a result, judgements are more influenced by recent information. This is especially true if the information is unusual or novel (Folkes, 1988) [7]

A study conducted in 2010 explored how social judgement can be influenced by television portrayals. It was found that if people watched violent media, they have greater estimates of the prevalence of crime in the real world. Therefore, recent exposure to the violence lead to an increase  estimation of violence, meaning recently viewed information e.g. behaviours can increase their perceived likelihood of occurring [8]. Therefore, showing something often can create a bias of presuming it occurs more often than it actually does and places greater importance on it than other phenomena. 

When applying this to black Friday sales, people are essentially ‘primed’ through buying during the ‘pre sales’ and advertising showing that the main day will provide great, maybe even better discounts. Presales give you a peak into what you could get and are usually coupled with a countdown on the website. Such information is thus stored recently and so is more available, meaning you are more likely to recall it. During black Friday weekend, when making the decision of what stores to shop from, you’ll use memories of recent purchases made earlier in the week as well as what deals those places said they will have and so you inevitably return back to those same places.

2.  Scarcity [9]

Linked to availability, is the idea of scarcity. You are constantly being told that there are limited quantities of stock left (availability heuristic), and because there is little left (scarcity) it encourages you to buy the item. Essentially, telling me that there is little of an item left is a threat and so I will place a higher value on it. It involves sacrificing something e.g. money to obtain more of the scarce resource [17]. Gupta’s (2013) work assessed this through the use in-depth face to face interviews with store managers of fashion franchises such as H&M in the US as well as shoppers. They found that by creating product uncertainty, it encouraged ‘motivation to buy’ behaviours such as urgency, which is mediated by emotions such as regret [10]

When we have big sales, like Black Friday you often see webpages advertising items as above, showing the % of the stock has been claimed. This can induce feelings of uncertainty (how long till it’s all gone?) and so encourages quick, impulsive thinking that is not based on reason, core features of our System 1 state [2]. It has essentially placed a time limit on making your decision, leading to people buying the item without much thought because it’s better to have something than miss out on the chance on having it (see: loss aversion) [2]. Questions such as ‘do I need it?’ ‘what value does it have to me?’ ‘can afford this?’ and ‘I get £18 off, but I’m still spending £60?’ are less likely be considered before the decision is made. In a way it comes down to wanting control over the situation and not having that ‘what if’ feeling.  A study by Lynn and Boggert found that having knowledge of a product being scarce will influence consumer evaluations of a product’s attractiveness, effectiveness and quality [11] .  

It’s seen as irrational partly because we know we can get the item elsewhere for a similar or even lower price outside of this time period, as suggested by Mourey [12] . Others say it’s because such environmental cues motivate people to ignore delayed gratification and go straight for immediate gratification. It’s believed that this is due to evolutionary instincts of hoarding items when they are scarce [13].  

Framing ideas in certain ways can led to use using shortcuts when making a decision and it plays a big role when making an item seem scarce. For instance, framing involves presenting an item a certain way (i.e loss or gain) which leads to people making a different decision than they would have compared to if the information was shown another way [2]. This is seen with the perfume sale image above, the red bar beneath the image shows 47% have been sold, rather than saying 53% remain which sounds less appealing and so is less likely to evoke the same response. Reframing has led to it being perceived as a potential loss rather than gaining a new item.

3.  Identity, Egotism and Self Concept

Apple’s advertising campaign: Mac’s are cool whereas PC’s and their users are not

Identity is often something used by companies to make you feel good and ‘part of the group’ because you are just like them. Some research [14] has shown that feeling like the brand matches your attitudes and beliefs, increases the chance of buying their product as it helps you cement your identity. People like luxury items, they indicate a sense of ‘class’ or being cool (as seen with Apple due to its innovative qualities rather than PC users who are boring as implied in the advert above) [15]. These products symbolise such ‘personality characteristics’ (in the anthropomorphic sense) and so people use them to consolidate their sense of identity, as well as showing others what they are like. Therefore, it can come down to ‘looking good’ dependant on what brands you associate with. Such expensive items tend to be much more affordable during Black Friday and so people will rush to buy these symbols of wealth in order to fit in with everyone else but also reinforce ideas of who they are.

Signing up as member can often strengthen this during sales. For instance, this year, Superdrug offered pre Black Friday discounts only to their members. This was advertised via email but also on their website for everyone to see, showing who is essentially ‘special’ and ‘one of us’. This makes people feel valued and so are more likely to spend there. 

Much of this can be explained by social identity theory [16] which proposes that we have personal (personality traits) and social (reflecting social groups we belong to) identities. Our sense of self depends on which identity is salient at the time, which can be influenced by context. During shopping, your social identity is salient, and similarity with another (in this case the shop / brand) can often encourage people to change their behaviour as well as increase the chance of trusting the other. In this case, it can increase the likelihood of shopping at said place. 

4.  Commitment and Consistency

How often have you said “Well, I’m already here now, so I should just do what I came to do?” Taking the time to go out and shop and spending money to travel are all investments when shopping. These are known as sunk costs as the cost has already occurred and cannot be returned [17].  

Businesses take advantage of this dilemma through utilising the ‘commitment and consistency principle’ [17]. This states that we have a desire to be consistent in what we do, therefore if we become committed to something, you are more likely to follow through. This is especially true if the commitment is made publicly as we don’t like not going through with things. Cialdini gives the example of how toy stores use this [17].  They will run adverts before Christmas on certain toys, kids see these and demands the toy from their carers. Stores will purposely undersupply on the item during the sale period, so parents are forced to buy the child something else. However, after the big sales are over, surprisingly the toy is back in stock and adverts are run again to let people know. The child then nudges their parents again and due the consistency principle, the parent will buy the toy for the child to make up for their initial promise [17].

But how does this relate to Black Friday? During the sales period, a company will focus marketing power on advertising the various items they have on sale. This is what induces the ‘commitment’ (to the product) aspect.  Seeing what’s available will lead to shoppers waking up before dawn and wait in long lines to get their hands on interested items. Because of all the effort they put into being there, they end up feeling obligated to buy anything just to justify it to themselves and others that the effort was worth it (the consistency aspect) even if items they came for are not present. Plus, the toy store example is not unheard of , where because it's  Christmas and parents have promised their kids that they'll get toys (commitments), the feel obliged to follow through, even if it's to buy something else because the original item is sold out (consistency). 

Are things always like this?
Because people are not always so straight forward, there isn’t always a formulaic approach companies can take to make you buy their stuff.  Assuming that people will respond in the same ways every time due not so rational decision making, has led to things like holiday sales fatigue. With sales occurring outside of black Friday often, people can get tired and instead start taking more rational and evaluative approaches if the same item constantly appears on offer. I’ve seen this with the Body Shop, they constantly have ‘40% off' sales on their website. I thought on black Friday things would be different, but no, 40% off is the amazing offer they have for a limited time! How exciting! This turned me off buying anything as this discount didn’t feel new or ‘special’ enough for Black Friday.

Some companies have decided to take a satirical approach instead, to mock how other outlets regularly have sales and encourage excessive material consumption. The creators of  ‘Cards Against Humanity’ (CAH) utilised the ‘expensive is good’ heuristic really well, a concept discussed by Cialdini [17] . He states that when a price of an item is hiked up and people don’t have information about it, they will rely on this heuristic to determine the item’s merit. Rao and Monroe (1989) used the example of turquoise jewellery, where people used the price of the item alone to judge its value. This is based on the associating ‘expensive’ with a product, which usually it means that the item must then be of a good quality, potentially rare and well-made [18] .

In the case of CAH, the creators hiked up the price of the game by $5 during one Black Friday. It can be hypothesised that for those who did not know much about the game, they used the price increase to judge its worth, and that the high price must mean it’s a good game. This led to an increase in sales, though on the creator’s blog it’s stated that they believe other factors played a role too e.g fans supporting the joke [19].

So, what should you do when you are being bombarded with emails and adverts about sales? Stop and think if you really need / want the item and if it is even a bargain. Am I only interested in it because it has been spoken about a lot? Am I buying it just for the brand name? Is the item really on low stock or can I buy it later? 

What you buy is obviously up to you, but it's always good to know if your are being influenced unknowingly to buy something you later regret. 

[1] Ariely, D. (2010). Predictably irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. New York: Harper Perennial.
[2] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
[3] Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124–1130.
[4] Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1-27.
[5] Crisp R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2014). Essential Social Psychology. Sage Publications
[6] Sawyer, A. J. (1981). Repetition, cognitive response, and persuasion. In R. E. Petty, T. M. Ostrom, & T. C. Brock (Eds.), Cognitive responses in Persuasion. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
[7] Folkes, V. S. (1988). The availability heuristic and perceived risk. Journal of consumer research, 15 (1), 13-23.
[8] Riddle, K. (2010). Always on my mind: exploring how frequent, recent and vivid television portrayals are used in the formation of social reality judgements. Media Psychology, 13, 155-179. 
[9] Mittone, L. & Savadori, L. (2009). "The Scarcity Bias". Applied Psychology. 58 (3): 453–468.
[10] Gupta, S. (2013). The psychological effects of perceived scarcity on consumers’ buying behaviour. Dissertations and thesis from the College of Business Administration, University of Nebraska.
[11] Lynn, M. & Boggert, P. (1996). The effect of scarcity on anticipated price appreciation. Journal of applied psychology, 26 (22), 1978-1984.
[12] Mourey, J. A., (2013). Urge: Why you really want what you want (and how to make everyone want what you’ve got). (n.p): (n.p).
[13] Saad, G. (2007) The evolutionary basis of consumption. US : Psychology Press.
[14] Burroughs, J. E. (1996) “Product Symbolism, Self Meaning, and Holistic Matching: the Role of Information Processing in Impulsive Buying", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo.  Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 463-469.
[15] Leander. K. (2002, December 4). Apple: It’s all about the brand. Retrieved from:
[16] Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. The social psychology of intergroup relations?, 33, 47.
[17] Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: Science and practice. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers.
[18] Rao, A. R, & Monroe, K. B. (1989). The effect of price, brand name and store name on buyer’s perceptions of product quality. Journal of Marketing Research, 26, 351-357.  

[19] Cards Against Humanity’s “$5 More” Black Friday Sale (n.d.). Retrieved from:

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