The Science Behind This Yearly Phenomenon May Surprise You

It’s that time of year again.  Undoubtedly, many parents will be scouring stores and online retailers for the gifts on their child’s Christmas wish list.

And if the last few decades are any indication, there will be a few fad toys that your child just has to have.  Not only do our kids jump on the bandwagon of wanting the latest fad, but mature and responsible parents everywhere are willing to trample over each other to get it.

Why do our children want the latest toy so badly, and why are parents willing to go to such lengths to get it for them?  The behavioral science behind this yearly phenomenon may surprise you.

NPR reported:

From the pet rocks and Tickle Me Elmos of decades past to today’s fidget spinners, certain toys have a way of taking kids’ daydreams by storm.  The follow-the-herd mentality that fuels fads emerges from a basic problem that has existed since the dawn of humanity, says Margo Bergman, an economist at the University of Washington, Tacoma, who has extensively reviewed research on fads to solve some of the most basic of mysteries about them.

We can’t be experts at everything. And nobody has the time or energy to make every decision that needs to happen every day from scratch. For the sake of efficiency, it makes sense to look to people we trust for information — about whether a berry is safe to eat, for instance, or if it’s worth paying tens of thousands of dollars for a vintage Cabbage Patch Kid.

Every year, toy manufacturers and retailers pour millions of dollars into creating and marketing the next fad toy, especially in preparation for the holiday season.  It doesn’t even seem to matter what the toy is or whether the child will even enjoy playing with it – they want it because everyone else wants it.  And this seems to be an inherently human trait that we all possess.

NPR continued:

We are social creatures, adds Vivian Friedman, a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham, who also writes a parenting advice column for The Birmingham News. And fads are often powered by a desire to fit in — by looking like everyone else or having what everyone else has.

Children are less prone to thinking about the abstract dynamics involved in their social worlds than are adults, Friedman says. “Children have less of an ability to say, ‘Well, I don’t need this toy to fit in because I can tell an interesting story.’ “

Kids are also attuned to novelty, Bergman points out. Compared to adults, they are less likely to have developed long-term planning skills and mature ideas about delayed gratification, making them all the more excited about whatever is new.

Manufacturers and retailers have a deep understanding of the psychology behind fad toys and know exactly how to market these items for optimal sales.  Fad toys are in some ways no different than any other product on the market where analysis of cultural trends, public interest, and the laws of supply and demand rule – fad toys explode in the market not based on how much they are worth, but how much parents are willing to pay for them.

And therein lies another layer of psychology for manufacturers to explore.  Parents may not always give their kids everything they want, but Christmas is the golden goose for companies who know parents will do almost anything to keep the magic and wonder of the holiday season alive for their kids.  For many, it is that one and only special gift their kids are begging for.

And for some parents, it is about the hunt in the most basic of terms.  We want to acquire what others may not be able to, to be good providers for our children and give them the best of everything.  Not unlike the hunters and gatherers of the past, we take pride in securing something for our family that may be hard to come by.

NPR reported:

Underlying the comings and goings of toy fads, Bergman says, are complicated social dynamics that involve both people who are influential and those who are susceptible to influence. Adults are far from immune, she adds, though a unique set of traits accentuates the begging factor among children.

But why does one toy become a fad and not another?

That’s where social interactions come into play, Bergman says. According to her research, fads only get started if they get a boost from key influencers, who can be community members or celebrities.

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The driving force, she says, comes from a tendency for people who don’t trust their own judgment look to others for wisdom about how best to make decisions. “We’re so inclined to trust, and we have to be, because without that trust, society breaks down,” Bergman says. But in choosing who to trust, she says, “we don’t always do a good job.”

So what does a parent who is being hounded by their children for the latest fad do?  As with every other lesson we aim to teach our kids, it involves really sitting down and talking to your child.

This is a good lesson in family values and self-awareness.  We can teach our kids the importance of who they are as a person, as opposed to being judged by our possessions.  Our value is not made by money or material items, but on the strength of our characters – other kids should not like them only for the toys they have.

Experts also suggest teaching kids to save money they earn throughout the year to really understand the cost of most of these fad toys.  When supply is low and demand is high, would it really be worth it to pay ten times the cost of what the product is worth?  This can become an early lesson in economics for a child who earns an allowance.

We all want our children to be happy and to feel accepted by others.  Experts agree that it is fine to allow our kids to jump on the bandwagon of a fad once in a while.  But parents must weigh the cost, both financial and psychological, of allowing the entire Christmas season to revolve around the quest for one toy that is likely to be forgotten when the next thing comes along.

What do you think of the marketing of fad toys?  Does your child have a particular fad toy in mind for Christmas, and do you plan on doing what you can to get it for them?  Leave us your thoughts in the comments.