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To Buy or Not to Buy: A Black Friday Guide to Improving Shopping Decisions

The crowd surges around you, lurching forward in one overpowering swell. There’s panting and shoving, sharp elbows and raised voices, clawing and tearing, frenzied looks and frazzled nerves. Light blaring in your eyes, tinny music blasting in your ears. And the nagging feeling that somewhere, somehow there is a better bargain on which you’re missing out. Welcome to shopping on Black Friday.

How do you optimize your shopping decisions?

The busiest shopping day of the year is just a few days away. But the point isn’t just to buy; it’s to buy well, to avoid making decisions that you’ll regret once the flurry and excitement of the day are behind you. How to make sure you make the best possible choices, that amidst the throngs of people, the flash of advertisements, the allure of price cuts across the line you end the day with those purchases that would be best for you?

As odd as it may sound, some research suggests that Black Friday may actually be creating just those circumstances that would prompt you to make a better—or at least, a more consistent—decision than you otherwise might. In a 2009 paper, Leonard Lee, On Amir, and Dan Ariely describe five experiments that point to the importance of relying on emotional reactions when making purchase decisions: emotional choices may suffer from less noise and be associated with greater preference consistency—at least in this specific instance.

In each study, the initial set-up was the same: participants were shown a number of electronic gadgets, such as a voice-recording key chain and a pen that doubled as an FM tuner, and told that they could study the objects for as long as they wanted to. Then, they were presented with just two of the objects at a time and asked to make a choice between them. Where the studies differed was in the conditions of the choice. In one contrast, where some participants saw pictures of the objects, others saw the words that described the objects but no visual representations. In another, some saw color photographs, and others, black-and-white versions. And in a final set of studies, while the objects that were presented to participants were held constant, some individuals had undergone a manipulation that made them more likely to trust their feelings, and others were limited in their cognitive capacity during the choice (i.e., they had to focus on another, simultaneous task that distracted them from the choice at hand).

When emotion is the way to go

The researchers discovered several things. First, people made fewer errors in transitivity (that is, saying a pen, for example, was better than a key chain, a key chain was better than a watch, but a watch was better than a pen—instead of the other way around, as would make logical sense) and decided significantly faster when they looked at pictures versus read descriptions of objects. Furthermore, people were half as likely to make transitivity mistakes when they looked at color pictures as when they saw the same pictures in black and white. Trusting one’s feelings also significantly boosted choice performance—as did having to rehearse a 10-digit number while choosing.

All of these factors point in a single direction: more emotionally-based processing can actually improve consistency in choice. Pictures are more emotional than words; color, more than black and white. And when we are cognitively busy, as when we rehearse something in our heads, our more intuitive processing system takes over from the more rational one.

The limits of relying on emotion

But before you joyfully run out to pick up everything in sight (the less reflection the better, right?) consider that these findings are actually quite limited in their applicability. First, consistent choices are not necessarily better choices. If you consistently choose something that is worse for you in some respect, is that still optimal? Emotion may help you avoid getting distracted and go with what your gut always knew you wanted—but it can also prevent you from reflecting on something that you hadn’t previously considered.

Plus: not all emotions are created equal. In these studies, the researchers manipulated a very specific affective aspect of the stimuli or stimuli environment. Are these manipulations the equivalent of rage or frenzy or over-excitement? Far less is known about how these powerful in-the-moment feelings—and ones that are all too frequent in shopping environments that are specifically designed to capitalize on consumer emotionality—may affect your judgment. Before you know it, you may be putting both the pen and the key chain in your shopping cart—or choosing something else entirely. That television sure looks good.

And that, perhaps, is the most important difference between the lab and the real world: in the lab, there are no curve balls. What you see is what you get. You don’t study up on the attributes of 10 objects only to find a new shiny toy staring at you, imploring you to look at it, pick it up, and take it home with you when you go to make your choice. And if we know anything about decision making, it is how much momentary influences matter. What is being advertised, how it is being presented, even who you see buying it—all of these things make a difference; all of these things are emotional; and not all of them will improve your ability to make a good choice.

At the end of the day, any advice is necessarily limited by the vagaries inherent in the shopping experience, especially at such prime marketing times as holiday discount and special events. My advice? Tread carefully. Emotion is good—but it comes with caveats. Use it judiciously.

Maybe, I’ll get that television set after all.

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