Black Friday Shopping Frenzy: Theories about Crowd Behavior


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Black Friday shoppers may stand in line for hours to get the deal they want. Image by Infusionsoft.

Somewhere, every Black Friday, it seems a fight breaks out.

This year, the Victoria’s Secret panty display outside Sacramento was the scene of a mini-riot with people of both sexes throwing punches.

In a Tallahassee, Florida Walmart, two people were shot over a parking space.

Why do people behave so badly in a crowd?

Social psychologists have developed several theories to explain crowd behavior; among them: deindividuation theory, circular reaction, and a concept about deliberate action in a crowd.

Deindividuation Theory: Gustave Le Bon

In his book, The Crowd, Gustav Le Bon theorized “that the psychology of men in a crowd differs essentially from their individual psychology; they be-come simple automata, instances of a sort of new being.” In other words, people in a crowd exhibit a primitive level of consciousness. According to this theory, behavior is seen as contagious and is highly influenced by leaders.

Circular Reaction Theory: Ernest W. Burgess, Robert E. Park

Ernest W. Burgess served as the president of the American Sociological Association and collaborated with many other social scientists, including Robert E. Park. Burgess and Park wrote about social interaction and collective behavior. For example, Burgess and Park believed that collective behavior was associated with “‘circular reaction’ a type of interaction in which each person reacts by repeating the action or mirroring the sentiment of another person, thereby intensifying the action or sentiment in the originator.”

The fist fight at the panty display appears to fit this model. At first, two women begin to fight, and then three men begin taking swings at each other. The action intensified, and sales displays tumbled as the melee expanded outwards from the center of the circle.

Deliberate Crowd Theory: Floyd Henry Allport

Social psychologist Floyd Henry Allport believed that “groups are assembled for deliberate activities.”  Therefore, what occurs at a group activity such as Black Friday happens with intent. In other words, people who want to act out while shopping are attracted to Black Friday events. While we do not know enough about the Black Friday underwear shoppers to judge their intent, it does appear that being willing to wield a weapon over a parking place takes an, err, special sort of person.

Black Friday Mob Behavior

Unfortunately, the mob behavior we see on the biggest Christmas shopping day of the year is just as dependable as the ‘Sale’ signs in every window. Depending upon which theory we apply, Black Friday violence can be attributed to automatic primal reactions, contagious and circular reactions, or just to bad eggs, out to splatter a few storefronts.


Los Angeles Times. Black Friday Fight at Women’s Underwear Sale Caught on Video. (2012). Accessed November 26, 2012.

ABC News. Black Friday Violence: 2 Shot Outside Walmart, Scuffles Across U.S(2012). Accessed November 26, 2012.

Encyclopedia Britannica. Collective BehaviorAccessed November 26, 2012.

American Sociological Association. Ernest Watson Burgess. Accessed November 26, 2012. Gustave Le Bon. Accessed November 26, 2012.

Wozniak, R. Floyd Henry Allport and the Social Psychology(1997). Accessed November 26, 2012.

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