Why we overspend (and for some, get violent) on Black Friday

Watch: Black Friday pandemonium

TORONTO – They line up for hours outside in the cold, wading through swarms of people scouring the endless aisles of sales. These are daring Black Friday shoppers looking for a deal.

Black Friday is one of the biggest shopping days of the year – last year, consumers spent more than $11 billion, according to U.S. reports.  But why do shoppers turn into spendthrifts, emptying their pockets and filling up their trunks during this 24-hour frenzy?

READ MORE: Ready. Set. Shop! Chaos and mayhem as shoppers embrace Black Friday in Canada and the U.S.

Dr. Laurence Ashworth calls Black Friday a “perfect storm” of a handful of psychological mechanisms. For starters, consumers already have a visceral response to seeing a deal. We see the actual price, then we see the price it’s being sold at on this one day only.

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That limited time offer is paired with a limited quantity of items in a crowded store.

“You have the possibility of getting a deal, which is very motivating already and on the flipside you have the strong possibility that you’ll miss out on the deal. These two things working in concert causes exactly the kind of behaviour that we see, the urgency, the rush and the desire to get ahead of other people,” he told Global News.

Video: Womans tasers another during Black Friday shopping

“People love it. They do all sorts of things to get it and it leads to irrational behaviour,” Ashworth said.

He’s a professor at the Queen’s University School of Business, where he specializes in understanding consumer judgement and decision-making.

“It’s a manipulative plot that’s not new in the shopping industry. If you want deals, you have to get them in within a certain period of time. It gets the mind going, ‘I’ve got to get this deal’ even if you don’t want to buy it,” Dr. Vera Tarman, a Toronto-based addictions expert, told Global News.

She says the adrenaline rush some consumers get from shopping and finding a bargain is akin to the thrill others get from gambling and even drugs.

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“It’s a rush of dopamine. It’s anticipation of the deals, what you’re going to buy, what you’re going to look like, where you’re going to put it in your house,” Tarman explained.

“Everybody enjoys shopping, that’s why they call it retail therapy.”

Canadian research suggests that shopping is similar to what our ancestors did as hunters looking for a meal. A Concordia University study even points to our biology – in this research, men that took on extravagant shopping, such as buying expensive cars, get a testosterone surge.

READ MORE: Black Friday deals put Canadians in shopping mood, many go online

Shopping to us could be like modern day hunting and gathering. And in theory the better deals that we score, the fitter we are at survival.

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“It’s this primal urge to hunt and gather, to go out there and be curious about things,” Tarman explained.

Consumers like to get the most value out of their money. But when sales are on the table, it’s more than a fair transaction, Ashworth explained.

“It’s not just that they avoided being ripped off, it’s that they’ve done better than a fair deal. Research shows people feel smart and competent when that happens,” he said.

In a York University study, students were given $10 each and sent into the store to make a purchase. Some people got to keep the change, while others had to give the remaining cash back.

Those who got to keep the change were happy, but those who got 50 per cent off only to return the rest of the money were just as pleased at the deal they found.

Humans tend to have a competitive streak – we want to show the world the television set, the pair of the jeans, the espresso machine we got for 25 per cent off. As hunters and gatherers, we’ve won, we’ve cheated the retailer and we got the better deal next to our neighbour.

It’s an innate feeling – to want to indulge, to want to treat ourselves. Black Friday, with a week-long build-up of commercials and email reminders just builds up that tension.

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Nicole McCance, a Toronto-based psychotherapist and author, says that lead up causes us to overspend.

“You get really excited, you have to stand in line and it’s one day only and you’re shopping next to hundreds of people. By the time you go in, you’re buzzing. It’s perfect because people buy more when they’re in that state of mind,” McCance said.

If they don’t buy their share of sales, it may not justify all of the lining up and elbowing they had to do, Ashworth said.

READ MORE: Watch: #Walmartfights during Black Friday madness

The feel-good dopamine isn’t a lingering feeling, though. By the time consumers are home, surrounded by their purchases, they aren’t as satisfied with themselves, both Tarman and McCance say.

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“They actually feel sick. They feel remorse because they’re coming down from their high,” Tarman explained.

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