Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Trapped in the pursuit of happiness: Psychology of consumerism and black friday madness

Group of people inside a shopping centre
Photo by Krisztina Papp on Unsplash
Ah, Black Friday, that money fuelled time of the year awaited by millions of eager individuals. This year, Black Friday is set to happen on November 29th. On this day, thousands of businesses will offer incredible sales and deals that we just cannot miss out on. Black Friday is one of those seasonal events that make me question the influence of consumerism on human behaviour. 

Our society is sold the idea that buying products will make us happier in life. Unfortunately, the focus on materialism can make us forget the simpler things in life. When we focus on wanting more, we often forget what we already have.

In addition, material possessions are viewed as a status symbol and this means that we end up in the rat race of competition and trying to be better than other people. I have observed that during sales periods, including Black Friday, human sensibility is put aside.  

In this post, I will discuss my thoughts on the consumerist culture and Black Friday madness. I will explore the psychological reasons underlying our material focused behaviour. In addition, this post will also offer some suggestions for moving forward in order to escape the traps of the consumerist culture.

Why do we enjoy buying things so much? 

Shopping facilitates our pleasure hormones 

People enjoy buying products because it makes them feel good. Think of the last time you have bought something, how did it make you feel? For me, buying products can make me feel happier. 

There is a simple biological explanation for the pleasurable nature of shopping. Our brains perceive buying a product as a reward, especially if the item is novel. Shopping increases the production of dopamine - a neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure. 

Dopamine plays a role in our reward-seeking behaviour. Biologically we are motivated to shop. Shopping is often referred to as retail therapy, an activity that is thought to help with the buyer's mood. Unfortunately, the gratification that shopping gives us is temporary, meaning that there is a risk to become addicted to buying more things for that pleasure kick. 

Our natural drive to seek pleasure can actually be intensified in Black Friday sales. Not only we receive pleasure from buying, but our bodies also feel rewarded by the act of saving money and finding great product deals.

The effect of belonging to a consumerist culture 

When we are brought up in a culture with specific ideals, these ideals can be transferred to our personal nature. Consumerism is ingrained in our culture. We are used to being in this rat race of buying things and wanting for more. 

Consequently, as a society, we have stopped questioning the materialism craze. We might not be aware of it, but culture has a great impact on our behaviour and attitudes. Over time, affording new products has become our power symbol. The effect of belonging to a consumerist culture is the entrapment in this social competition. 

Carl Jung referred to this 'groupthink' as the collective unconscious. He proposed that structures of the unconscious mind can be actually shared amongst individuals of the same species. According to Jung, our shared values have been genetically inherited over millions of years. So this could explain our shared motivation to keep buying things.

The power of the media on our behaviour 

Media advertising is everywhere. Television, computers, our phones. Media has become a beast, especially when it comes to targeted advertising. Adverts attempt to target us based on our income, age, gender, personalities, habits, lifestyle...the list is endless. 

Due to the existence of Cookies (no, not the kind that go well with milk), businesses are allowed to track our behaviour and bombard us with relevant digital adverts, everywhere we browse. Media traps us inside the world of consumerism, and it's difficult to escape it. 

Media constantly sells the idea that 'you are never good enough' and that 'you need something more, you need to buy something to better your life'. The beauty industry is reliant on these messages. We are made to feel insecure, and this insecurity drives our behaviour to buy things. 

Have you ever thought that we are constantly told that we have problems and that our problems will be fixed by miracle products? 

Honestly, when I was in this facebook group for beauty-enthusiasts, I witnessed a 10-year old girl, applying an anti-wrinkle cream on her face. She explained in the live video that how she just can't live without the cream. It was shocking that such a young person was already influenced by the media and the beauty industry. 

What does psychology say about consumerism? 

Materialism as a source of happiness 

I have already mentioned that we are fixed on the idea that material possessions can increase our happiness and life satisfaction. According to psychological research, this is far from the truth. 

The pursuit of material possessions is actually linked with lower life satisfaction (Ryan & Dziurawiez, 2001). Van Boven (2005) found that focusing on life experiences rather than material possessions leads to greater happiness. 

It is far more healthy to make your purchases with the intention to get life experiences rather than to purely own something for the sake of it. 

Consumerism and hyper-conformity 

Group conformity is a type of social influence in which we change our behaviour/attitudes in order to fit within the group. Social psychology has plenty of classic conformity experiments and Solomon Asch's experiments are probably the most well known. 

He conducted a series of conformity experiments during the 1950s. In his line experiment, Asch gave a perceptual task to a group of 8 individuals (in reality, there was only one real participant. The rest were confederates). In this perceptual task, individuals were given a card with a reference line and another card with three comparison lines. 

Comparison and reference lines from Solomon Asch study
They were asked to find the line that's identical to the reference line. The confederates deliberately gave the wrong answers out loud. As a result, the real participant followed the majority and made the same decisions. This group conformity resulted from self-doubt and the need to fit with the group norm. 

Conformity has a huge influence on our behaviour - consumerism can be seen as a type of hyper-conformity. The great majority of people have stopped to question consumerism, Black Friday madness and general stupidity of material focused culture. Instead, they keep pursuing material pleasures and avoid critical thinking. We conform to this group norm because we want to feel accepted by the majority. 

Consumerism and self-control 

If someone placed a plate with a single marshmallow in front of you but told you not to eat it yet, so you can get another marshmallow later, how would you feel? 

If you were in a shop filled with trendy products, how would you feel? 

Would you have the self-control not to eat the marshmallow, or not to buy the things that you don't need? 

Consumer self-control is actually negatively correlated with misbehaviour. This means if you lack self-control, you are more likely to be one of those people who use irresponsible means to acquire things during sales. It can be difficult to resist the temptation of sales. 

When you lack self-control, you are more likely to be influenced by the consumerist culture. We tend to blindly accept the influence of huge businesses and forget that we make our own decisions. 

Black Friday and social responsibility 

When I think of Black Friday, I think of people pushing each other to get their hands on discounted products. During sales periods, social responsibility tends to be forgotten. People are far more selfish than usual. 

This means that during Black Friday (and other sales) we behave irresponsibly because it motivates our self-interest.

Black Friday is also a time-sensitive event, which leads to greater madness. We are surrounded by signs that trigger a sense of urgency: 




Red poster in a supermarket that says sale limited time offer
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels 

What are the steps you should take to escape the traps of consumerist culture? 

You will always belong to a consumerist culture, however, you can take steps to become a more informed consumer. You can focus on raising your awareness of media influence, group conformity, and other cultural factors. When it comes to consumerism and Black Friday madness, these are the things that you should consider: 

1. Be aware of media influence. Don't let the media turn you into a puppet. 

2. Think twice before buying something to avoid unnecessary purchases. 

3. If you choose to head to retail stores during Black Friday (or other events), remember to be kind to the staff. 

4. Be aware of your purchase intentions. Ask yourself: 'Why am I buying this? Will it help me progress as an individual or is it just another thing that I will own?'. 

5. Make your own decisions. Be an informed customer. 

6. Stick to your self-discipline. 

7. Understand those material possessions will not make you happier. 

So here's the end to my long-winded post on consumerism and Black Friday craze. I think if you take one thing from this post it should be this: have awareness and think before you buy.

I completely understand that sales can provide us with means to actually afford things that we wouldn't be able to! It's just important not to lose ourselves in this consumerism madness.  

Chasing for materialistic happiness will never end. Let's work on improving our critical thinking, and focus on life experiences instead. 

What do you think about consumerism and sales? 

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  1. It really is about being aware of what you are buying and why you are buying it! I try to think, could I use this in more than one way in my life? If I cannot then I try to think about it. Often deals get us spending more than planned because instead of the one item we wanted we buy two to get two more free. Such a great article!!

  2. This is such an interesting post! I loved how real and research based you made it! This consumerist culture and Black Friday madness is insane, and I agree that it can be psychologically (and financially) damaging to many people. My mom and I have gone Black Friday shopping for years, and we have tried to keep a positive attitude focused on kindness and gift-giving. Every year we compete with ourselves to see how many of my cousins’ Christmas gifts we can purchase on sale. We try to not buy things for ourselves, only for Christmas presents (which makes the rest of December super easy). Even with these goals though, the consumerist society is hard to maneuver around and Black Friday can definitely be a trap to make excessive purchases! Great post!

  3. I am so guilty of this - counting the days... Very interesting, introspective analysis of Black Friday! Thanks for sharing!

  4. It is easy to feel special buying something at a deal. But the reality is, hundreds of other people are also feeling special. Many of us need to feel special; singled out, unique.

    I love spending the money I earn. But I like to spend it on useful things. And I will hunt for a deal, since so much these days is capitalized on. However, I do not spend for the sake of happiness. I would be happy without a box to open or a gift to give.

    Love how you explored the temptations of Black Friday! May you avoid the sinkhole.

  5. I know this day is crazy! I think a lot the things we buy come from media. We're told if we don't have these things we aren't cool.

  6. Excellent advice!

    "When we focus on wanting more, we often forget what we already have."

    This is a great point. It can be a fine line between adding something of value and being happy about it and being ungrateful for your current state. When we can strike this balance of being grateful for what we already have and for adding things of value, we're in pretty good shape!

    John |

  7. Although I am aware of the psychology you talked about, I was shocked by several parts of your post. I am just finishing up a post that talks about being counter-cultural (for positive reasons) and your writing reminded me of the scary truth that, for the majority of us, we are at risk of falling into consumerist traps and moving away from our individual judgment.

  8. In order not to succumb to the general panic and desire to buy everything, I always make a list of purchases necessary for me and buy only what is in it and nothing more.


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