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Science underlies scramble for bargains

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From page A11 | December 06, 2012 |

Surely there are people who found Black Friday fun but we haven’t talked to any of them yet. We have learned, though, that it wasn’t a happy shopping day for several people around the country, including:

  • The couple shot in a dispute over a parking place in Tallahassee, Fla. The suspects, another man and woman, have been charged with attempted murder, according to The Associated Press, after the female suspect shot the couple after demanding “everything” in the female victim’s purse.
  • The suspected shoplifter who died when employees and a contract security officer “subdued” him outside a Walmart in Lithonia, Ga. A “physical altercation” took place, police say, when the man was followed outside. According to a Walmart spokeswoman, “No amount of merchandise is worth someone’s life.”

True enough. In fact, she added, employees are told to avoid confrontations.

But the two employees, who have been suspended without pay, apparently thought putting themselves in danger was acceptable company policy as was beating the suspect. The security company for which the officer works no longer handles security for Walmart, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It’s not just the big-box stores, of course, where shopping mania overcomes common sense and common courtesy.

Those stores naturally attract the largest number of shoppers. And, sad to say, when everyone is scrambling in the “fun” of scoring bargains, it’s not surprising that someone occasionally gets hurt – or worse.

What do such events say about us, not just about our ability to disregard others in the quest for stuff, but about our inability to not behave like rabid animals in the process?

Nothing flattering, which can all too often be the case with human nature.

Researchers, including Jane Boyd Thomas, professor of marketing at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., say Black Friday shopping is less about bargains than the psychology of bargains.

According to a report by Huffington Post senior science editor David Freeman, Thomas said that stereotypes about women and shopping are especially true during holiday gift-buying trips.

Laura Brannon of Kansas State University goes deeper into the psyche to explain the allure of crowds and competition on Black Friday: Shoppers get caught up in the actions of others.

“If you have five people stand on a busy street corner and look up in the air, rest assured, most passers-by will stop and look up as well because they’ll assume there’s something to look at,” she told the Huffington reporter. Brannon says we all fall prey to “social proof,” meaning that if other people are interested in something, we use that as evidence that it must be good and desired.

This year, Black Friday sales topped $1 billion, perhaps an indicator of consumer confidence or maybe just a hint that Americans love a bargain, even for something we didn’t know we wanted until we saw 50 other people grabbing for it.

Scripps Howard News Service

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