Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

The Psychology of Time Pressured Sales

Time pressure primes you to act rather than deliberate.

Black Friday
Sales are a huge part of Black Friday
For the entire week before Thanksgiving, the words "Black Friday" dominated the business news. If you were not steeped in consumer culture, you might think that some dreaded calamity was about to unfold a few days after Thanksgiving. Instead, of course, Black Friday is the name that merchants have manufactured to suggest the day that they will start to make a profit for the year. And this year, I noticed an uptick in emails for "Cyber Monday," which seems to be the internet equivalent of Black Friday.

These pushes to get people to do their holiday shopping early seem to be working. Some of the big box retailers in Austin had lines stretching around the building for the early-morning store openings.

Black Friday
Actually, stores don't want you to stop on Black Friday.
Retailers are enticing people into stores with the promise of great deals on products. But that still doesn't explain the shopping frenzy that happens the day after Thanksgiving. After all, if stores really need to push their products off the shelves, they will continue to offer discounts in the days leading up to the holidays.

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The research of Arie Kruglanski and his colleagues offers a clue to what might be going on here. In a 1996 paper in Psychological Review, Kruglanski and Donna Webster described a motivational concept called need for closure. Need for closure is the degree to which you need to finish with a decision process and take an action. Ordinarily, people differ in their need for closure. Some people like to think for a long time before making a choice, while other people like to make choices quickly.

People's need for closure influences their motivation to act. A low need for closure creates a mindset for deliberation. In this mindset, people will sit and think extensively about a purchase. A high need for closure creates a mindset for action. In this case, a person is prone to make a choice and take an action (like pulling a product off the store shelf).

Black Friday creates a situation that creates a high need for closure. The retailer offers discounts on products and suggests that these discounts will not be around for long. The crowd in the store gives the impression that you have to act quickly. These factors push people away from a deliberation mindset and toward an action mindset.

One reason why this matters is that the kinds of information people use to make choices will change depending on their mindset. People with a deliberation mindset will focus on comparing a variety of products. They will think carefully about the features that they need and whether they can afford to make the purchase. People with an action mindset think less about the products. They pay less attention to their budget and more attention to the desirability of the product and whether the sale makes the product feel like a good deal.

The pressures that create a high need for closure are most effective for expensive products like consumer electronics. Often, these products are high involvement products. That is, they are products that people are going to spend a lot of money on and keep for a long time, and so people tend to think carefully about their decisions for these products. Low involvement products are items like soaps or detergents that are low-cost and will be used quickly. People tend not to think carefully about low involvement products.

A high need for closure pushes people away from thinking carefully about these high involvement products by focusing them on the need to act quickly to get a good deal. While someone might ordinarily comparison shop at many stores before making a big purchase, the pressure of Black Friday pushes them to decide quickly rather than contemplating the purchase more carefully.

To deal with any time pressured sale effectively, it is important to do your homework. Do your comparison shopping at home and know which features you want in a product. Make sure you know what price is a good one. Decide before you go to the store whether you want an extended service plan on electronics. Make a list of items you will consider purchasing and try to stick to that list. Ultimately, you want to prevent the store from deciding the level of closure that is right for you.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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