When Holiday Shopping Runs Away with Us

So, Thanksgiving has derailed my train of thought regarding the PNRC (Promise Neighborhood Research Consortium) and cultural change, but I swear I’ll get back to it in the next few days. In the meantime, I want to do some scientific grousing (i.e. complaining; let’s call it what it is) inspired by the annual onset of holiday shopping.

When I was a child in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the holiday season reached full swing around early-to-mid December. At least that’s how I remember it. Yes, Black Friday was still Black Friday, though I’m not sure if we called it that back then; it definitely entailed less of a sense of simultaneous urgency and dread. One thing I’m certain of is that Christmas decorations and store displays were not at all allowed before Black Friday, an unspoken rule that no longer stands. Stores were packed, but opened at normal times, not this year’s 3 a.m. record set by Target and Walmart. Stores wouldn’t even have considered opening on Thanksgiving (as Walmart did this year; nice family values for a group that rhetorically champions them in order to shepherd in the conservative populace).

What has happened? Why, every year, does it creep just a little further? Why do the television, newspaper and online advertisements insist—nay, assume—that the only thing left to do is spend-spend-spend on our loved ones? (What would Jesus do?)

Well, I can think of no better example of runaway selection. R.A. Fisher originally proposed this theory in 1915 to address physical or behavioral attributes that are absolutely ridiculous, but are instrumental to attracting members of the opposite sex. For example, male quetzals have long tails that must hinder flying (see picture below). Despite its apparent costs, if females find a long tail attractive, males with longer tails will reproduce more, leading to a population with longer tails on average. The same will happen in the next generation, and the average tail length will increase just a little more. If attractiveness increases with length without limit, then the tail will be selected to be longer and longer until one of two things happens: a) genetics cannot provide for a longer tail, or b) the costs of the trait (i.e. increased predation) offset attractiveness.

A drawing of a male quetzal, replete with tail.

Going back to holiday shopping, we are the flocking female quetzals, and profits are the metric by which success is measured. As a result, price slashes, early store openings, and Christmas displays in mid-September are our quetzal’s tail. The mall is open at 7, but Target opens at 6. Oh, but Walmart is open at 5. Target is going to have to hop to 4 a.m. to get the early crowd. Similarly, one store puts up their Christmas display on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but the other puts it up two weeks earlier. Guess who’s going to get the business of those who want to get Christmas shopping out of the way. Further, those avid shoppers will tell their friends about it, generating even more profit for the store that beat everyone else to the punch. This never-ending process of one-up-manship is runaway selection in action.

But why is America’s quetzal tail so much longer than that of any other country? Simply put, no other country flocks to the stores with as much fervor as we do. Our extreme consumerism is the selection pressure that has pushed holiday shopping to its logical extreme. In other countries most people wouldn’t bother going to the store just because it’s open at 3 a.m. Thus, there is no advantage to opening that early. However, we reward stores for doing so, creating the cartoonish situation that we are faced with: stores falling over themselves to court us, the female quetzal of the consumer world.


About Dan

Daniel Tumminelli O’Brien, PhD, is the Project Manager of the Harvard Boston Research Initiative at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor at Binghamton University where he has been a key player in the development of the Binghamton Neighborhood Project. Both projects bring together academic and city agencies in the development of innovative solutions for the everyday challenges of urban life. Amidst these efforts, his own research focuses on urban social behavior. As an educator, he has concentrated on pedagogical techniques that bring evolutionary theory to classrooms outside the biological sciences.
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3 Responses to When Holiday Shopping Runs Away with Us

  1. Dan Dan says:

    I guess you’ve got a point, Yasha. There are limits, and we’ve been around that border all along. These are like evolutionary dead ends, or places where practicality prevents any greater elaboration of the trait. On the other hand, we see companies doing all they can to continue competing in areas that permit it. The earlier opening times for big box stores this year is one example. Another is last week’s “Cyber Week,” announced by Amazon as an entire week of shopping deals.

  2. Avatar Dave Gerstle says:

    I was wondering why the greeter at WalMart kept trying to touch me.

  3. Avatar Yasha Hartberg says:

    It’s an interesting thought, Dan, and there may be a bit of truth in it. On the other hand, I can recall similar complaints about the ever earlier start to the Christmas season from my childhood. These generally began sometime just before Thanksgiving, about the same time as today. Moreover, when I worked at Hallmark more years ago than I care to remember, probably around the halcyon days of your childhood, we had an annual “Christmas in July” sale, that some found rather obscene. So even though the boundaries seem to have been transgressed a bit this year with the store openings on Thanksgiving day itself, I’m still inclined to think that we’ve reached the limits of what the shopping public will tolerate. Or at least I hope so!

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