To fight. To win.  To claim the ultimate accolade, and know that you are the best of us.  You, who have fought the hoards and won – your trophy? A brand new Sony Cybershot 18 Megapixel camera with 30% off RRP.

black FridayI am of course referring to the annual madness that is the Black Friday sale, a sale so popular, that Currys.co.uk won’t even let you onto their website (as I type, there’s a 22 minute virtual queue even to look at the items on offer!).

But what is it that makes us seemingly rational creatures drop all pretense at logic and rush to join this feeding frenzy of consumerism? (and let’s be honest, we all know everything will be cheaper after Christmas anyway).

There are so many heuristic forces at play here, and they all stem back to our shared evolutionary heritage. Think back to the time of neanderthal man – or even earlier. This was not a time of abundance.  Food and comfort were hard won, and had to be defended as a matter of life and death (sadly, some, even in today’s world, still face these issues). In these hard times, stopping to consider a logical response to a potentially life saving opportunity could mean going hungry.  The brain was primed to respond to sating stimulus through unconscious reaction – bypassing the conscious, considered response, and giving us an instinctual, almost instantaneous mechanism.

There are three distinct heuristics at play here, all of which stem from this survival instinct.

Social proof.

If you’re a zebra, and all your fellow zebra start running in one direction, but you stand still, or worse, head in the opposite direction, it’s unlikely you would survive long (the local lions would however love you!).  Following social proof is a great evolutionary advantage – and the reason why there are still so many zebras around today. But social proof can be subverted and manipulated. (See below)

When in doubt, we look to the wisdom of crowds to inform our decisions, and when those crowds are screaming and fighting to get their hands on a 20% off Remington hair curler (as was suggested by Curries queue to access the site), our instincts kick in, and we reach for the curling tongs!

Scarcity.

Strongly linked to social proof (if an item is popular, it’s likely there’ll be less of them), scarcity acts as a visual trigger that we need to act quickly in order to bring home the metaphorical bacon.  Of course, scarcity can be faked, as limitations on product price and description allow us to manufacture the perception of scarcity. A store may have 100 of a certain type of dress, but only 25 of them in a certain colour, and only 3 of them in a certain colour/size combination. 100 drops down to three pretty quickly, and guess which quantity the store advertises online!  This effect becomes even more pronounced when a store limits the number of products available at a discounted price, as in the case of black Friday sales.

Urgency.

“When they’re gone, they’re gone”, the adverts confidently announce, “at least until the next sale”, we might knowingly add.  But the addition of a time based limitation on a sale really does trigger our ancestral impulses.  Our instincts are honed by the past knowledge that, having expounded energy on the hunt, missing out on our just rewards may result in starvation, and even death. The threat of missing out will often override our most rational instincts – and Black Friday’s notorious flash offers (only available for 60 minutes or less) play on this deep insecurity.

So there you have it.  Three psychological forces that are powerful in isolation, and almost insurmountable when combined.

My advice.  Switch off your laptop and don’t turn in back on until the boxing day sales!

Happy Black Friday folks.