The scientific explanation of why people kill each other over TVs on Black Friday

November 23, 2014

Shoppers rush for televisions at a Target store in Chicago

What causes people to kick, shove and even stab each other on Black Friday?

Each year there are reports of violence during the Black Friday sales. Last year, in Philadelphia – the City of Brotherly Love, no less – two families fought until one of the women ended matters with a stun gun. In a New Jersey Walmart, a belligerent shopper had to be pepper sprayed by police. And in Virginia, one man slashed another with a knife in an argument over a parking spot. This year, there are sure to be similar cases.

And why?

The reasons are primal.

We are all “hardwired” for violence under the right set of circumstances. Fortunately, those circumstances are rare (increasingly so), but do occasionally occur.

So what conditions set the stage for possible violence on Black Friday? The first is a valuable reward – something we are highly motivated to obtain. On Black Friday, the reward is a bargain. And people love bargains. In part, this is because we tend to view price reduction as a gain — as something for nothing. Consider that, shopping and saving at the very same time!

But getting a deal is also affirming, exciting, and allows us to enjoy products that would normally be out of our reach. People will wait overnight in freezing weather for the chance to get a good deal. They will also buy stuff they have absolutely no need for, simply because it is on sale. How many of us can look no further than the closet to see evidence of this?

That alone shouldn’t inspire people to violence though — a few more key ingredients are needed.

The second condition is competition. And the competition originates in the limited number of products that are typically offered at the most heavily discounted prices, the “door-buster” items. Not only are these items more desirable due to their larger discount, but there are typically only a small number of them available.

This means one shopper’s gain is another shopper’s loss, a psychological zero-sum game. Factor into that the sheer quantity of people waiting to rush once the doors open – last year Macy’s saw over 15,000 eager shoppers waiting to get in – and you have a level of competition like no other time of year.

Now we’re starting to talk about some classic violence-inducing conditions: massive competition for a very limited number of high-value resources. Our behavior, however, is also severely constrained by relevant social norms. That brings us to the third relevant condition: the presence or absence of norms that might promote or prevent violent behavior.

One of the norms that is relevant to situations involving scarce resources is the line-up norm. Lining up is a socially agreed upon alternative to a free-for-all for access to resources, and generally reduces violence.

The line-up norm, however, can sometimes inspire violence. Especially when someone butts in. This has been the cause of past Black Friday violence, and almost certainly will be again. The line-up norm is so powerful that even people in front of the person who butted in get upset. Violence in this case is a way of protecting the norm.

The line-up norm causes additional problems on Black Friday too, because, at a certain point, it no longer holds – when the doors open. The norm at that point is free-for-all.

Ironically, this norm is implicitly sanctioned by stores. They make a big fanfare of opening the doors, of letting the crowds rush in. They set a discrete date and time for the sale to start, and, very often, a limited number of heavily advertised door-crasher items. That’s not to absolve shoppers of any responsibility, but it is worth noting that the system is almost optimally designed to cause shopping mayhem.

With all those factors at play, it is perhaps a testament to our “better angels” that there isn’t more violence.

PHOTO: Shoppers rush for televisions at a Target store in Chicago November 27, 2009. REUTERS/John Gress 

9 comments

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This has all the makings of a grrreeaat Reality Show. The conditions are perfect, the competition fierce, and blood sometimes gets spilled.

How come nobody’s selling the program, huh?

(Snark)

Posted by larrymotuz | Report as abusive

Thanks for the interesting perspective Professor Ashworth. I suspect your findings apply to almost any societal breakdown.

Posted by ltcrunch | Report as abusive

1. Bargains are massively appealing because most Americans are paid a sub standard wage relative to the overall cost of living.
2. Many Americans are completely sedentary. They have no physical outlet to vent their inner competitor’s rage at always being asked to wait for a venue in which physical competition is acceptable.
3. Empathy is at an all time low in America, and distrust and hate are on the rise in areas losing their middle class footing.
4. Real and imagined violence are commonplace. Between regular school shootings, and the imagined violence of television and Hollywood, violence is a major theme in American culture, as it has been since the wild west days.

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive

The author forgot to include the spectacle of the hysterical shopping experience. I suspect people hope to see some craziness/violence without intending to contribute to it. What fun! What entertainment!

He didn’t outright state, but implied this, that “winning” is key to the competition. For some in our consumer/consumption driven society, winning 50% off on a big screen TV is a lifetime achievement.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

They are morons.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The free-for-all norm is explicitly, not implicitly, sanctioned in the advertised “door-buster” deals you mentioned. Meaning, retailers are literally encouraging people to bust down their doors. So perhaps retailers should shoulder the lion’s share of blame for the mayhem.

Posted by Huhulea | Report as abusive

I agree with the “They are morons” comment.

Posted by InTune | Report as abusive

Black Friday participation is generally associated with low IQ and low reasoning ability. Basically the same kind of people who respond to spam ads because they look real.

Go to a black friday line. Start asking people there where they finished college. You will get blank stares and slack jaws. As they where their spongebob pajamas in line.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Reuters removing the comments option from all important articles and letting readers comment on crappy articles as this is the worst decision ever made.
Good bye Reuters

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive