Sunday Forum: Stampeding shoppers

In America, we are what we consume, says psychologist PATRICIA RAMSEY


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Like many, I have been haunted over the past week by the news from Long Island that a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by customers stampeding into a store to take advantage of special Black Friday deals.

It is tempting to portray the crowd as greed-crazed shoppers who value bargains over human life. But they were just like you and me and thousands of other shoppers that day: ordinary folks who had been whipped into a frenzy by declining economic realities and elusive promises.

It was the perfect storm.

For decades we have been manipulated by advertisers and ever present media to want more and more. It is almost impossible to avoid commercials and in-your-face promotions these days.

Wait on the phone to talk to your doctor and you start hearing the dulcet tones of a pharmaceutical infomercial. Google a question on the Internet and suddenly you are pushing a virtual shopping cart in Amazon.com. Send your children to school, and they come home with promotional materials or singing jingles they heard on the school bus.

And it works: Listen to any conversation among children or teens and most likely at some point you will hear competitive talk about clothes, toys or video games.

Our nation is in a crisis, and crisis is always a time of opportunity -- for good or for ill. Right now, with corporations insisting on taxpayer bail-outs and retailers revving up folks to buy things they do not need, it seems the main thrust is to make ordinary citizens prop up the economy over and over again.

All of us have been caught up in the consumerist frenzy of our times and it is hard to find anyone who does not hanker after something. However, many of us have learned to value ourselves in terms of what we own -- not who we are or what we can contribute to the world -- and shopping is our addiction.

Like any drug it assuages loneliness and gives rise to euphoria. That moment of finding "just the thing I need at a good price" and taking ownership by virtue of a credit card or exchange of cash provides a momentary sense of accomplishment and hope. Hope because we have been assured that buying a particular product will bring us the happiness and social acceptance we yearn for.

Of course, like all addictions, it only offers an illusion, and the joy of acquisition is short-lived. We all know buyers' remorse and the burden of needing to care for and store unnecessary items that tantalized us just weeks before. Just look at all the self-storage units where all the "must-have" purchases of yesterday are gathering dust.

We constantly seek yet another fix but to no avail. In fact, research shows that affluent people who spend lavishly are less content than those who have less and that children growing up with an abundance of material goods are more likely to have drug and alcohol problems than those raised in more modest circumstances.

So here we are -- a nation psychologically addicted to consuming -- and along comes the economic melt down. Suddenly, we are very scared. Jobs, homes, health care and retirement funds are evaporating like small puddles in the bright sun. Even if we have not yet lost our jobs, we worry that we will.

Retailers, all too mindful that this fear will make us wisely hang onto our cash, create a new source of anxiety to divert us from the economic realities that we face. They tantalize us with great "deals" on everything -- mostly, of course, on things that we do not need; no crowds were barging into grocery stores on Black Friday.

But here is the hitch: The deals are available only in limited amounts. Fantasies of fabulous bargains become anxieties spurred by scarcity. So people forgo spending Thanksgiving evening with their families and a good night's sleep to stand in line for the absurd early opening times that stores have instituted to add to the sense of urgency.

For many of the retailers it is the old "bait and switch" -- a ploy to get crowds into their stores with the hope that once they are there, they will buy, even if the "deals" are gone, or never actually existed.

The day after Thanksgiving saw frenzied shoppers at retail outlets coast to coast. Exhausted, hungry folks, whose economic worries had transmuted into a determination to acquire a $400 TV set or $50 iPod, roared into stores with a laser-like focus on getting to the right aisle and shelf first -- pushing each other and employees out of the way in the rush. They are not bad people, just blinded to the well-being and safety of others by frustration and compulsion -- like most addicts.

Suddenly, the tragic event in Wal-Mart makes sense. We are lucky that more people were not trampled to death on Black Friday.


Patricia Ramsey is professor and chair of the department of psychology and education at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. ( www.mtholyoke.edu ). First Published December 7, 2008 5:00 AM


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