Why Black Friday Is a Behavioral Economist’s Nightmare

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Your yearly dose of economic irrationality.Photo: Michael Nagle/Getty Images

There are many, many reasons not to participate in Black Friday. Maybe you like sleeping in and spending time with family more than lining up in a mall parking lot at 2 a.m. Maybe you object on humanitarian grounds to the ever-earlier opening times, which force employees of big-box retailers to cut their holidays short by reporting to work in the middle of the night. (Or, increasingly, on Thanksgiving itself.)

But among the most potent reasons no sane person should participate in Black Friday is this: It is carefully designed to make you behave like an idiot.

The big problem with Black Friday, from a behavioral economist's perspective, is that every incentive a consumer could possibly have to participate — the promise of "doorbuster" deals on big-ticket items like TVs and computers, the opportunity to get all your holiday shopping done at once — is either largely illusory or outweighed by a disincentive on the other side. It's a nationwide experiment in consumer irrationality, dressed up as a cheerful holiday add-on.

As Dan Ariely explains in his book, Predictably Irrational, "We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains."

This applies to shopping on the other 364 days of the year, too. But on Black Friday, our rational decision-making faculties are at their weakest, just as stores are trying their hardest to maximize your mistakes. Here are just a few of the behavioral traps you might fall into this Friday:

The doorbuster: The doorbuster is a big-ticket item (typically, a TV or other consumer electronics item) that retailers advertise at an extremely low cost. (At Best Buy this year, it's this $179.99 Toshiba TV.) We call these things "loss-leaders," but rarely are the items actually sold at a loss. More often, they're sold at or slightly above cost in order to get you in the store, where you'll buy more stuff that is priced at normal, high-margin levels.

That's the retailer's Black Friday secret: You never just buy the TV. You buy the gold-plated HDMI cables, the fancy wall-mount kit (with the installation fee), the expensive power strip, and the Xbox game that catches your eye across the aisle. And by the time you're checking out, any gains you might have made on the TV itself have vanished.

Implied scarcity: This is when a store attempts to drum up interest in an item by claiming "limited quantity" or "maximum two per customer," which makes us think we're getting something valuable when we may not be. It's a staple of deceptive marketing, and at no time in the calendar year is it in wider use than on Black Friday. (There is also actual scarcity on Black Friday — when stores carry only a 50 or 100 of an advertised doorbuster item — which also introduces a risk that you'll be 51st or 101th in line and waste your time entirety. Both are bad.)

Confirmation bias: As Derek Thompson points out, many shoppers neglect to factor in the non-cash costs of their Black Friday trip — gas, parking, warranties, and rebates. (To say nothing of the vacation time lost to waiting in lines.) Shoppers want to believe they save money by going out on Black Friday, so they use only their per-item savings in calculating the benefits of their trip. But on a net basis, it's often not a very good deal.

Irrational escalation: This behavioral quirk is also known as the "sunk cost fallacy," and it means that people are bad at knowing when to give up on unprofitable endeavors. This happens a lot on Black Friday. If you've already made the initial, bad investment of getting up at 2 a.m., driving to the mall, finding parking, and waiting in line for a store to open, you'll be inclined to buy more than you initially came for. (Since, after all, you're already there, and what's another few hundred dollars?)

Pain anesthetization: One of my favorite pieces of shopping-related research is a 2007 paper called "Neural Predictors of Purchases" [PDF] which used fMRI scans of shoppers' brains to show how deeply irrational the purchasing process is. Researchers found that if a shopper saw a price that was lower than expected, his medial prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for decision-making) lit up, while higher-than-expected prices caused the insula (the pain-registering part) to go wild. That brain activity had a strong correlation to whether or not the shoppers ended up buying the products or not.

Economists typically think of consumer choice as dispassionate cost-benefit analysis by rational market actors — a bunch of people saying to themselves, "Will having this $179.99 TV now create more pleasure than having the $179.99 in my bank account to do other things in the future?" — but the 2007 study shows that shoppers don't actually behave that way at all. In fact, they're choosing between immediate pleasure and immediate pain.

That explains why, on Black Friday, retailers pull out every trick in their playbook to minimize the immediate pain of buying: instant rebates, in-house credit cards with one-time sign-up discounts, multi-year layaway plans, and the like. The problem, of course, is that those methods of short-term anesthetization often carry long-term consequences — like astronomically high interest rates and hidden fees.

Post-purchase rationalization: When we've bought something expensive, we tend to overlook its flaws or defects in order to justify our decision. On Black Friday, the investment is more than just financial — we've emotionally invested in the post-holiday ritual of standing in line with friends or family and enduring cold, dark misery for the shot at cheap electronics. That excess investment leads to excess rationalization, and coupled with a return/refund process that is a nightmare at many big-box retailers, it leads to people owning a lot of things they're not very happy with.

In short, if shopping on the other 364 days of the year is the behavioral economist's version of bringing a knife to a gunfight, going out on Black Friday is going to that same gunfight with a knife made out of Play-Doh. Between retail tricks and your own cognitive flaws, you have almost no chance of actually saving money or making rational decisions. (Plus, you might get trampled.)

Of course, just by telling you to stay home on Black Friday, I may be triggering your reactance bias (the tendency to do the opposite of what someone tells you) and making you want to go bargain-hunting even more. In which case, good luck. You'll need it.