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Opinion

Why We're All So Impatient For Black Friday

By Adam Alter

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When you remind people that they’re deprived, they become drawn to whatever happens to be scarce nearby, as though possessing a scarce object corrects the imbalance.

Until recently, Thanksgiving Day was sacred. Retailers kept their doors closed until midnight, so the boundary between dignified family dinners and frenzied bargain hunting remained inviolate. Walmart breached this rule in 2011, announcing that its holiday sales would begin at 10 P.M. on Thanksgiving Day. Sears and Kmart followed suit. The following year, Walmart began its sales at 8 P.M. on Thanksgiving Day. And now Walmart has announced that its sales this year will begin at 6 P.M. on Thanksgiving—with many of its online sales having already started almost a week earlier, on the Friday before Thanksgiving. This trend is known as “Black Friday creep,” and it continues because large retailers recognize that many of their consumers are impatient to begin shopping.

Scientists have wondered for some time what makes certain people—and certain species—more patient than others. Eleven monkeys delivered part of that answer in an experiment in 2005. Some of the monkeys were common marmosets, and the others were cotton-top tamarins. The two species share many similarities. They’re both very small, weighing about as much as a tub of margarine. Their brains are small, too, accounting for about two and a half per cent of their body mass. They live in the lower and middle canopies of large trees in South American rain forests, where they’re raised by both of their parents. But tamarins are impetuous while marmosets show restraint. During a series of trials, the monkeys had a choice: they could pull a lever that immediately released two pellets of food, or they could pull a second lever, which would reveal a richer reward of six pellets, but only after a delay. The delay varied across the trials, which allowed the researchers to calculate how long the monkeys were willing to wait, on average, for the bonus pellets. The tamarins were willing to wait an average of just eight seconds for the bonus pellets—any longer, and they pulled the lever that revealed the meagre, two-pellet prize. In contrast, the marmosets were willing to wait an average of fourteen seconds for the bonus pellets, almost twice as long as the tamarins were willing to wait. When the tamarin has long since given up on the bonus pellets, the marmoset waits patiently and comes away three hundred per cent richer.

Read the full article as published in The New Yorker.

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Adam Alter is an Assistant Professor of Marketing with affiliated appointment in the Psychology Department.