Dan Ariely: Why Our Brains Might Not Be Able to Resist Black Friday

BY Paul Solman  November 23, 2012 at 2:05 PM EDT


People crowd the aisles inside Macy’s department store in New York City during last year’s Black Friday sales. Photo by Stan Homda/AFP/Getty Images.

Well, in the best tradition of bait-and-switch, this is Duke behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely not on after-Thanksgiving shopping, but on consumerism in general, and how ill-equipped our brains may be when it comes to resisting the pitches of modern marketing. Black Friday sales discounts happen to be a vivid example, but the trends in sales technology are more pervasive, more pernicious, perhaps more permanent.

Making Sense

This exchange with Dan came during in an interview for our story on Sesame St. and marshmallows. My administering the “marshmallow test” to Grover proved a mixed blessing: a rare experience, soured by a subsequent diss from Stephen Colbert and my own warm and fuzzy response. Dan’s family is featured in the original story and the response to Colbert. As for the interview, Dan and I were talking about cutting-edge marketing techniques. The overall context was the difficulty of delaying gratification, as in the case of Grover and the marshmallows.

Dan Ariely: As we develop new technologies, what kind of technologies are we developing? And it turns out that the technologies we are developing are mostly about taxing our here and now. Think about it. Every food place, what do they want? They want you to eat something now, to crave it now. Facebook wants you to go multiple times today, not next month. All these technologies that are being invented around us are about our immediate desire to do something. Right? And as more and more of these technologies come — checking your email now, getting your movie now — all of those things are about getting here and now and because of that the little ability that we have to fight temptation has many more challenges. There’s a beautiful paper by [Duke's] Ralph Keeney analyzing what percentage of deaths have been caused by bad decision-making. Okay, he said, 80 years ago it was maybe about 10 percent. Well, what with industrial accidents, mistakes, those things that cause death today, it’s about 50 percent. Right? It comes from things like smoking, obesity and texting while driving. If you look at all of those places in which we’ve created technology that challenges our limited ability to resist temptation we just create more and more of them, and because of that we fail more and more.

Paul Solman: Are our brains then over-matched by other brains’ ability to appeal to the here and now?

Dan Ariely: I think so. I think that what happened is that the way that technology is being created, it’s not created by the average brain, it’s created by a few brains and it also has this much faster evolutionary process in which you try different versions. Think about something like Facebook. Which features of Facebook survive, and which ones get eliminated? You put lots of features in, you see which one people use, you see which one of them causes people to come and get my students back five times in an average lecture, and those are features that are going to stay. So the cycle of evolution is much more powerful, the quality of the data is much higher, so there’s really kind of a very strong imbalance about how much we can tempt people and how much people can actually resist temptation.

Paul Solman: You were a marketing professor, right?

Dan Ariely: Yeah, yeah.

Paul Solman: Were you part of the problem as opposed to the solution? I mean a marketing professor! I remember being surprised when I heard you were a marketing professor.

Dan Ariely: I think that every piece of knowledge can be used for good and for bad and the problem with what we study — which is basically understanding human motivation in a deep, in a deep way — is that it can be used to abuse people.

Paul Solman: Dan signs all his emails, “Irrationally yours.”

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions.