Things I'm Interested In (Installment #2): Death on Black Friday

From the New York Times today:

The throng of Wal-Mart shoppers had been building all night, filling sidewalks and stretching across a vast parking lot at the Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, N.Y. At 3:30 a.m., the Nassau County police had to be called in for crowd control, and an officer with a bullhorn pleaded for order.

Tension grew as the 5 a.m. opening neared. Someone taped up a crude poster: “Blitz Line Starts Here.”

By 4:55, with no police officers in sight, the crowd of more than 2,000 had become a rabble, and could be held back no longer. Fists banged and shoulders pressed on the sliding-glass double doors, which bowed in with the weight of the assault. Six to 10 workers inside tried to push back, but it was hopeless...

Read the full article here.

First, an apology. The tone of title of this new series of mine, Things I'm Interested In, doesn't fit the tragedy of this post. I'm not blandly "interested" in death. By "interest" I mean that I'm using these posts to point you to things that capture my attention beyond the regular fare of this blog. And this Black Friday story has definitely caught, horrifically caught, my attention.

How does such a thing happen? Are people simply evil? No doubt preachers across the country will be talking about this incident from their Sunday morning pulpits. The true meaning of Christmas? Well, for some it seems to be trampling people to death to get a bargain price.

Beyond my horror, this story has had my psychologist brain ticking all day. What individual and group dynamics created this incident? Here's how I've been breaking it down.

1.) You have a highly motivated, focused person to show up at 3:30 am. This person is investing a lot to get out to the store.

2.) When this person arrives at Walmart he/she is thinking he/she is going to be the early bird that gets the worm. There are expectations (hopes) in play.

3.) However, upon arrival the shopper finds a huge crowd. Expectations are dashed. Frustration grows.

4.) The crowd grows to 2,000. Frustration turns to anxiety. The person in line does a simple calculus: There are only so many products and deals inside. Much fewer than 2,000. It appears that the shopper has gotten up early, driven to the store, and stood in line for nothing. That is, unless, the shopper can get inside first.

Psychologically, we now have a perfect storm. Each person has a sunk cost. And rather than walk away people begin to raise the stakes by jockeying for position. Inch by inch the crowd pushes forwad. It's an irrational escalation of commitment, it's a dollar auction. We have 2,000 people playing a game as adversaries. One person starts jockeying for position. This rattles the people around them. These people fear they will be too slow. So they start pushing forward to gain an inch on a competitor. This jittery behavior soon takes over the entire crowd. Particularly as the clock gets closer to 5:00. The mass of people starts pushing forward, preparing to run. And the more jittery and hostile the crowd the more people become emotional and focused on self-preservation: "When this crowd breaks I'm moving forward. Fast." To get the deal? Probably. But I'm thinking a kind of mass hysteria began to take over as well.

I'm sure social psychologists will analyze this incident in the days and months to come. As I said, preachers will be drawing a great many lessons from this incident, decrying this worst outcome of the commercialization of Christmas. And I don't disagree. But I also keep wondering about what was going on in the crowd. What where the small steps that led to the jittery, panicky escalation? The people in that crowd are just like you and me. So what happened to them in that crowd?

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6 thoughts on “Things I'm Interested In (Installment #2): Death on Black Friday”

  1. If I was preaching this Sunday I would likely include it (I will have to wait for next week).
    I think part of the tragedy is that nearly every event in North America is a movement from the many to the few, or the one. For Christ's sake CNN had to award a million dollars this weekend to the 'best' hero.
    It is more than dashed hopes of the deal. It is the American way!
    I am searching for a response.

  2. I'd personally see this incident as mimesis, a la Rene Girard, that strikingly fits with some fundamental anthropological oppositions and unities between worship and consumption.

    "'Man is what he eats.' But what does he eat and why?" To Alexander Schmemann the Biblical picture agrees with Feuerbach: the world is food. Which food, and for what, is the question. Are we "homo adorans," returning the world to God? Or do we consume, dominate, and compete for ourselves? Is it the politics of scarcity (a la Joseph and Pharaoh) or abundance (Moses and Jesus)? If the former, then of course our consumption will acquire a religious mimetic character.

    I also just stumbled across a related article from The Other Journal that touches on the subject.

  3. I too, wondered why such things have an effect on people. Have you read "Becoming Evil" by James Waller? He is a social psychologist in Washington state. He has some extraordinarily interesting charts on identification factors and creating a culture of cruelty. He has much info on genocides, etc...interesting stuff...and horrendously apropo for religious groups!

  4. I think your analysis is exactly right. The X factor for me is: what motivates people to camp out all night in front of a store (in November!) to get these items? Is the coming gift exchange putting that much psychological pressure on them? (Gift exchanges are a whole other interesting psychological subject.) Or do some of them in fact like the sporting aspect of this arrangement, and so show up already with a spirit that 'winning' is for their own sake?

    It does bother me that although social psychologists could have predicted this kind of thing, retailers deliberately set up Black Friday to create this sort of mob frenzy. I suppose that when you think about it, the fact that only one death occurred among all the millions of shoppers on Friday makes it less dangerous than some other activities (like, say, driving). But it does seem like this sort of thing could be prevented with some basic precautions. There was a fascinating article in the New Yorker recently about how voting booths used to create a similar environment that led to frequent violence, but rule changes essentially eliminated this:

  5. Thank you, Richard. Insightful and thought-provoking as ever.


    I came across a "thing" that may interest you - an analysis of when Peanuts introduced a black character.

    Schulz was told "I don’t mind you having a black character, but please don’t show them in school together".

    His response: "But I never paid any attention to those things, and I remember telling Larry at the time about Franklin—he wanted me to change it, and we talked about it for a long while on the phone, and I finally sighed and said, 'Well, Larry, let’s put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?' So that’s the way that ended. But I’ve never done much with Franklin, because I don’t do race things. I’m not an expert on race."

    I thought it was fascinating the quiet, unassuming way that Schulz handled such a sensitive issue.

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