What Happens To Your Brain When You Shop On Black Friday

A shopping street crowded during Black Friday. Black Friday deals can produce positive mood, but als...
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Black Friday is one of the most popular shopping days in the calendar, and bargain-hunters wait for it like football-lovers long for the Superbowl. It might feel good to get that vacuum for 65% off, but experts tell Bustle that Black Friday can have unexpected effects on your mood and mental health, both positive and negative. Black Friday is popular because humans love the pleasurable rush of a good deal — the neurological surge of delight we get when we bag a good bargain — but for some people, that rush can become a problem. Shops on Black Friday can also be a very intense experience, complete with crowds, lights, and a lot of other stimuli that can cause issues for people with social phobias or anxiety. Either way, it's not uncommon to come away from the post-Thanksgiving sales feeling a little discombobulated.

"Black Friday can be fun if you choose to partake in it, but don’t feel left out if it’s not your thing," mental health counselor Heidi McBain LMFT tells Bustle. One of the primary ways in which Black Friday can affect your brain and mood, she says, is through the shopping itself. A study published in 2007 in Neuron found that the brain has its own "shopping centers," or regions that light up like a holiday tree when you find a good deal — and some of those areas give us pleasure.

Shopping people often show activation in their nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain associated with our processing of pleasure and positive feelings. The study also found that shopping stimulated areas of the brain related to decision-making and assessing pain, likely while people deliberated purchases and figured out whether the deal they were contemplating was really worth the cash. When you're walking away from the shops on Black Friday with hard-earned purchases in your bag, your brain is glowing with good feelings.

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Those feelings can also change depending on what you've bought. Behavioral psychologists distinguish between two types of purchases: hedonic and utilitarian. Hedonic purchases are things you buy for fun or pleasure, while utilitarian purchases are things you need. Some items are both; you can purchase a handbag or a car that's useful and also makes you happy. A study published in Judgement & Decision-Making in 2016 found that people who intended to buy hedonic purchases for themselves tended to feel more guilty beforehand, even if they felt more pleasure afterwards. If you're setting out on Black Friday to splurge on fun items for yourself, you may well feel guilt beforehand and happiness afterward — but, according to the 2016 study, guilt tends to be lessened if you're making the fun purchases as gifts for somebody else.

For some people, however, the activation of the nucleus accumbens through shopping can become a craving, and they start to seek the positive feelings of a purchase even when they don't need to be buying anything. Studies have found that people impulse-buy for various reasons, including the hedonic rush that our brains produce when we take home a purchase. Research on compulsive shoppers in Comprehensive Psychiatry in 2016 noted that they were more likely to shop when they felt the pressure to purchase (like in a massive Black Friday sale), craved the positive feelings of shopping, or wanted to stave off boredom or depression.

Got the post-Black Friday blues? It may be because the positive activity in your brain has worn off. If you know you tend to impulse-buy or shop extensively when you need a pick-me-up, and then feel low afterwards, McBain suggests taking care of yourself around Black Friday. "Keep an eye on how you’re truly feeling later on," she tells Bustle. If you’re experiencing buyers' remorse, or felt like you over spent, consider taking some of these items back."

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However, the experience of Black Friday can be overwhelming for other reasons. "If you have any sort of phobias or social anxiety around crowds, be sure to take this into consideration with your Black Friday shopping plans," McBain tells Bustle. The experience of Black Friday may trigger your fight-or-flight reflex. This is the part of the brain that deals with potential threats, and makes your heart pound as adrenaline and other stress hormones spike.

Anxious people tend to have sensitive fight-or-flight triggers, and there are many potential anxiety-provoking aspects to Black Friday: loud noises, large crowds (which can make people feel claustrophobic), and unpredictable strangers in close proximity. The risk of conflict is also heightened: A study from Eastern Illinois University in 2011 found that while the majority of shoppers in Black Friday crowds behave politely, a minority behave in antisocial ways, "exhibiting negative and potentially dangerous behaviors," including belligerence, cursing, or grabbing products from others. Aggressive people in your personal space can easily trigger an anxious response, even if you're not anxious in other situations.

If you recognize that you experience some negative mental health effects on Black Friday, but are still intent on getting deals, McBain says planning ahead is important. "Shop super early or late at night to try to avoid some of the large middle of the day crowds, or forgo the shopping day completely and wait for Cyber Monday instead," she tells Bustle. She also suggests that if you feel distress around the holidays, it's a good idea to reach out to a therapist to make sure you have the proper support.

Studies cited:

Black, D. W., Shaw, M., & Allen, J. (2016). Five-year follow-up of people diagnosed with compulsive shopping disorder. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 68, 97–102. doi: 10.1016/j.comppsych.2016.03.004

Dagher, A. (2007). Shopping Centers in the Brain. Neuron, 53(1), 7–8. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2006.12.014

Dhar, R., & Wertenbroch, K. (2000). Consumer Choice between Hedonic and Utilitarian Goods. Journal of Marketing Research, 37(1), 60–71. doi: 10.1509/jmkr.

Horváth, C., & Adıgüzel, F. (2018). Shopping enjoyment to the extreme: Hedonic shopping motivations and compulsive buying in developed and emerging markets. Journal of Business Research, 86, 300–310. doi: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2017.07.013

Lourenco, S. F., Longo, M. R., & Pathman, T. (2011). Near space and its relation to claustrophobic fear. Cognition, 119(3), 448–453. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.02.009

Lu, J., Liu, Z., & Fang, Z. (2016). Hedonic products for you, utilitarian products for me. Judgment and Decision Making, 11(4), 332–341.

Simpson, L., Taylor, L., O'Rourke, K. & Shaw, K. An Analysis of Consumer Behavior on Black Friday. (2011). Faculty Research & Creative Activity. 13.


Heidi McBain LMFT, mental health counselor