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.
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.