The Behavioural Science Behind Black Friday

There are cynics among us who refuse to be seduced by the lure of Black Friday, as questions are increasingly raised about how great these deals really are.  But as rational as we may wish to be about the offers pinging into our inboxes and heralded across our high streets, we are hard-wired to succumb to temptation.  Why?  Because BF uses all the BE tricks in the book to convince our natural instincts that we need to pounce.

But while Black Friday offers us a great illustration of the powerful biases that can be harnessed to influence purchasing behaviour, there is evidence that our rational, so-called ‘system 2’ selves are fighting back…  In our survey of 500 shoppers this year, there was clear evidence that some retailers were over-playing their hand and meeting resistance.

Our 2019 data confirms that Black Friday sales have shifted dramatically online (a staggering 87% of claimed purchases were made this way) and perhaps with this trend comes a more controlled and rational shopping experience, increasingly resistant to being swept up in the moment.  Here are some of the biases we’ve seen in play and shoppers’ reactions, both positive and negative.


40% of our most engaged Black Friday participants admit that they are driven by fear of missing out or the ‘loss aversion’ bias.  By shining a spotlight on a limited window of opportunity, Black Friday manufactures a sense of urgency that many can’t resist.  However, by widening the window from a single day, Back Friday is in danger of diluting this effect – a third of 2018 Black Friday rejectors say they preferred the one-day hit of earlier years.

Conversely, Black Friday must also be careful not to overplay its hand in the loss aversion stakes, creating an unwelcome backlash by adding too much time pressure.  Tactics like countdown clocks and limited stock are making a sizeable proportion of shoppers feel duped and unwilling to play the game, (43%) as they snap into system 2 defensive mode.


With scepticism rife among shoppers (nearly a third expressed this feeling about Black Friday this year), how can they be convinced that these are deals that must be swept up?  In BE terms, effective ‘price anchoring’ is the answer, providing trustworthy evidence that prices were much higher before.  Discounts off everything in store have struck a particularly strong chord this year because savings are unequivocal.  Less transparent tactics have left many wondering whether Black Friday prices are genuinely better than any other time of year: doubts expressed by 65% of rejectors.


We’re naturally wired to follow the herd. In BE terminology it’s called ‘social proofing’.  Hardly surprising then that 1 in 10 shoppers bought because they thought everyone else was.  But this tide can easily turn if received wisdom changes its view of the event – and our data offers some stark warnings, as 34% of shoppers this year agree that Black Friday isn’t as good as it used to be.


Let’s make no mistake about it, Black Friday knows what buttons to press to get the pulse racing and the credit card straining. But susceptible as we are to our natural biases, shoppers don’t like to feel they are being manipulated.  Overstep the mark and the Black magic will soon be lost…

Katie Grundy