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Black Friday, Anxiety, and the Contrast Principle

#BlackFriday at Best Buy, 12:05amBlack Friday is officially over.

In California, a woman made a mad dash for some Walmart doorbusters and allegedly pepper sprayed the fellow shoppers in her wake.

In Alabama, police had to subdue one shopper with a stun gun.

In Oregon, a fight broke out over towels. Yes, towels. Towels that were on sale at Walmart for $1.88.

And where there wasn’t fighting, there was still pushing, shoving, grabbing, crowding, yelling, throwing, rushing, and screaming. Over towels:

…over memory cards and cameras:

…and over video games:

Did you see the girl in the third video who had to climb over the potato display to escape the crowd? I’m willing to bet ten bucks that no one has ever had to climb over that potato display on any other day of the year.


You might see Black Friday as a fun opportunity to snag some excellent deals. Or, you might see Black Friday as a viciously capitalistic display of brash consumerism.

No matter what, we can probably all agree that Black Friday is a 10 on the 1-to-10 scale of extreme shopping. Die-hard consumers line up well before stores open. They camp out in tents. They chug coffee to get pumped up. They stand in line, store circulars at the ready, and prepare to sprint toward their loot when the doors open.

And then, there’s us. The anxious folks. The panicky people. The agoraphobic crowd. The kind of people who have to fight our hardest on a normal day at the store — not to squeeze through crowds, but to ward off the fight-or-flight sensation. And to calm our breathing. And to slow our heart rate down.

And remember — that’s on a normal day. At this point, I can’t even imagine how I would feel if I’d tried to grab some of those $1.88 towels at Walmart yesterday. I’m certain, at this point in my progress, that I could have driven to the store without issue. And I could have walked to the entrance with only mild anxiety.

But the thought of passing through those motion-activated double doors? And being swallowed up in a wavy cluster of deal-seeking bodies? And not being able to control where I am walking (or being pushed)? And not being able to efficiently retreat to a restroom or to the outside sidewalk if I feel unwell?

The color drained from my face just typing the above sentences.


These videos serve a dual purpose for me. First, they strengthen my personal resolve to treat others with respect. Black Friday brings out the worst in people only one day — or perhaps even only a few hours — after we give thanks for all the wonderful things and people in our lives. The juxtaposition is disturbing. America may always cling to its John Wayne mythos of rugged individualism, but this doesn’t mean we need to trample others to score a sweet deal for ourselves.

Second, thanks to the contrast principle (which is a type of cognitive bias), these videos make a standard day of non-Black Friday shopping seem like a cakewalk. Acknowledging the worst-case shopping scenarios puts a normal, everyday trip to a supercenter like Walmart or Target into a better light. No (major) crowds, no fighting, no pushing. No rushing, no shoving, and no pepper spray. The lines are comparatively shorter. The cashiers are (probably) in better moods. And so are your fellow shoppers.

Cognitive biases aren’t always a positive thing, but in this case, the contrast principle is functional and helpful.

Compared to Black Friday, everyday shopping doesn’t seem nearly as frightening. Sure, I’ll probably hold onto the standard agoraphobic worries for some time: what if I get lightheaded in the middle of the store? What if I get dizzy in line? What if I can’t breathe when I’m in the middle of the aisle? What if I need to sit down? What if I pass out? What if I get nauseous?

But, so long as I’m not plastered up against a potato display while a crowd rushes toward cheap video games, lightheadedness doesn’t seem so dire.

So long as I’m not packed in a sardine can of towel-crazy women, dizziness probably can’t hurt me.

So long as I’m not stuck in a cascade of bodies trying to move from the cheap memory cards to the cash register, the impulse to immediately sit down isn’t going to cause me any real harm.

Sometimes, thinking about the worst-case scenario helps to bring a situation into perspective. Maybe I can do this. Maybe I can start going to big-box stores again without panicking. Maybe I can walk back to the furthest point in the store without freaking out. Maybe I can shop for items in the middle aisles instead of sticking to my false safety net of the perimeter.

And so long as it’s not Black Friday, maybe I can even handle crowds:

Well, let me clarify: small crowds. Very small crowds.

At least it’s a start.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Robert Stromberg

Black Friday, Anxiety, and the Contrast Principle

Summer Beretsky

Summer Beretsky enjoys writing about her experiences with anxiety, panic, and Paxil. She had her first panic attack as an undergrad at Lycoming College and plenty more while she worked toward her M.A. in Communication from the University of Delaware. She contributes to the World of Psychology blog here on PsychCentral and has written for the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @summerberetsky.

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APA Reference
Beretsky, S. (2011). Black Friday, Anxiety, and the Contrast Principle. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Nov 2011
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