Israeli scientists explain why Black Friday sales are a matter of survival

The brain’s “reward system” is why we find such pleasure in the perfect pair of high heels at 50% off, and still continue shopping for a matching handbag that we might not really need.

Black Friday (photo credit: REUTERS)
Black Friday
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What is about Black Friday that drives people to shop like materialism maniacs or hungry lions?
Dr. Einav Sudai of Bar-Ilan University’s Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center and Prof. Galit Shohat-Ophir of the Faculty of Life Science explained to The Jerusalem Post that it is a matter of survival.
The brain’s “reward system” is why we find such pleasure in the perfect pair of high heels at 50% off, and still continue shopping for a matching handbag that we might not really need.
The “stick” of the system, explained Shohat-Ophir, is motivation.
“Motivation is an internal state in the brain that drives goal directed behavior, like eating when we are hungry, or drinking when we are thirsty,” she said. “Satisfying these drives is essential for immediate survival and reproduction. Basically, the brain is the best-ever survival mechanism.”
Motivation controls that these behaviors are carried out in the right amount, at the right time and in the right context, she said, impacting both our short-term survival (we won’t starve to death) and our long-term survival (sexual interaction or taking care of offspring).
Once the goal is reached – we ate because we were hungry – the “carrot” or reward system kicks in and “gives us a pleasurable feeling that will make us do the behavior again and again.”
The reward system is present in the simplest animals, even fruit flies, and more complicated animals, such as us humans.
“We are like hungry lions who notice an approaching flock of antelope: first, we discern the dust kicked up by their movement and the rustling in the nearby vegetation, and then the antelope’s scent begins to activate our hunting instincts,” Sudai described in a Facebook post. “There is limited time for action – the antelopes are swift; their numbers are sparse and the demand is high because other predators lurk in every corner. All our systems are primed. We are focused and ready to take action. And the nerve pathway that elicits dopamine in our brain? It was secreting even before we started hunting.
This “survival mechanism is exactly the same mechanism that makes us pounce first on doorbuster sales,” said Sudai. “When we click the mouse and make a purchase, there is a burst of dopamine in the brain, even before the shipment arrives.” She said on Black Friday we feel “impelled to set out on a ‘hunting’ expedition, armed with credit cards and consumer motivation.”
When we eat and drink, for example, dopamine is excreted, too.
But there is more: Black Friday advertisements also pique our interest as the shopping spree day gets closer, like a sign for Aroma after a sleepless night or the smell of blintzes baking an hour before the conclusion of Yom Kippur.
“When we are hungry and we smell food, we are much more sensitive to its smell,” Shohat-Ophir said. “The brain associates certain cues – smells or sights – with experiences that bring us rewards.”
She added that just like when we are really hungry, we are less inclined to ensure the food we consume is healthy, so too, when we are so driven by the rich and exciting Black Friday shopping spree specials, we are less likely to ensure we watch what we buy.
Shohat-Ophir noted that different people need different levels of reward before they become satisfied. Those with “smaller buckets that fill up quickly,” need less and those with what she described as larger buckets can need more, which sometimes leads to addiction.
The good news is that rewards can come in healthier forms and at low cost, Sudai noted in her post, “for example via social interaction, exercise and study.”
So, instead of over shopping on Black Friday, she continued, “we recommend settling for a hug or a run. The dopamine is all the same.”