The psychology of panic buying

(Originally published 24 March 2020)

Empty shelves.  A lack of hand sanitiser.  Shopping carts filled with months’ worth of toilet paper, dry pasta, and canned goods.  These have become the apocalyptic images of Covid-19.

 

But why are so many people panic buying when there is no rational need?

Both the government and industry have gone to great lengths to assure the public that there are plenty of supplies; no one is in danger of missing out.  And yet, empty supermarkets have become routine and locating toilet paper is even more difficult than finding Waldo in the pre-social distancing days.

These aren’t a few isolated cases; they are the new norm.  What’s going on?  How can we understand such seemingly inexplicable behaviour?

Uncertain times

The coronavirus is scary. Never in our lifetime has there been an infectious disease threat as devastating to society.  There is no script – not for governments, businesses or individuals.  As a result, we are experiencing unprecedented uncertainty in every aspect of our lives, causing enormous anxiety.

 

Cells, in a part of your brain called the amygdala, are very sensitive to anxiety.  When you perceive a threat – even a vague one such as the risk of disease – the amygdala initiates a flight-or-flight response. Your body prepares for action by signalling your hypothalamus to produce adrenaline which increases blood flow to your muscles, speeds up your breathing, and raises sugar levels in your blood – things that help you respond immediately to an acute threat. Obviously the virus may not be an acute threat, but neither your brain nor your body knows that.

 

Repeated acute threats – such as the innumerably daily reminders that Covid-19 is coming to get you – build up levels of the stress hormone cortisol which has longer lasting effects than adrenalin.  Among other things, cortisol inhibits functioning of the pre-frontal cortex, a part of the brain critical for rational decision making.  In evolutionary terms, this helps us to make rapid decisions without unnecessary delays, but in the current situation it can also lead to bad decisions.

Illusion of control

Faced with a threat, our first response is to do something about it.  

 

In the current environment, however, it is not always clear what we can do.  What actions will make me safer, protect my family and reduce my stress levels?  What can I do – right now – that will make a difference?

 

The sad truth is: we don’t know yet.  Clearly, there are some things we can do: Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. Wear a mask.  It’s not much, is it?

 

In the absence of satisfactory choices, people make up their own.  Wearing a surgical mask does not protect you from the virus, although it limits other people’s exposure to your germs if you are already infected. Most people know this but still choose to wear the masks, precisely because it feels like they are doing something.  In psychology, we call this the illusion of control.

 

We all overestimate our ability to control events.  One of the most common places you see this is in sports.  For example, you may wear that ratty David Beckham jersey every time you watch football, precisely because that’s what you were wearing when Manchester United won the FA Cup in ‘96. You feel that by wearing the jersey, you’re doing your bit to contribute to Man U’s next win.  The rational part of your mind is well aware that wearing the jersey makes no difference whatsoever, but you do it – just in case.

 

Panic buying is another form of illusory control.  It is something you as an individual can do to take control of your situation.  Damn it, even if society collapses and we are forced to eat the neighbour’s kid, at least there will be plenty of toilet paper! That, my friends, is control.

Social conformity

Humans are fundamentally a social species; we rely on each other to develop complex social support networks.  When uncertain, we often look to those networks to help guide our behaviour.  When surrounded by shoppers with carts full of toilet paper, it is perfectly natural to assume they know something you do not, and purchase the family size jumbo pack for the one-room studio you share with your cats.  

In fact, social cues from the people around you are incredibly powerful, even without any uncertainty.  People want to fit in and an effective way todo that is to match attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours to those around you.

One of the most powerful demonstrations of this was an experiment conducted by Solomon Asch in 1951.  Asch brought groups of eight students together in a room and showed them a single line and a set of three lines side-by-side (see Figure).  One-by-one he asked the people in the room to say which of the three lines was the same length as the single, target line. Unbeknownst to the participant, the other seven people in the room worked for Asch and purposely chose an incorrect answer.  In the example here, they might all say “b.”  By the time Asch asked the actual participant, they were surprisingly willing to also say “b.”  They had conformed to the social pressure around them.  In some cases participants knew their answer was incorrect but said it anyway.  Others convinced themselves that “b” was indeed the correct answer despite contradictory evidence from their eyes.

 

Humans are not alone in this type of behaviour.  In fact, there are striking examples in flocks of birds, swarms of insects, and schools of fish where they appear to coordinate their movements in complex patterns. In reality, there is no one steering the ship; the behaviour emerges from simple local rules: when uncertain, follow the bird next to you.  Not sure what to buy?  Then get what she just bought.  In this fashion, panic buying emerges as a public safety risk from many people trying to minimise their uncertainty and follow the crowd.

 

This type of social conformity is different from peer pressure.  Panic buying is not the result of friends and neighbours cajoling you into buying that extra toilet paper (you know you want it and besides, everyone is doing it).  Social norms are more subtle and in someways, harder to fight, precisely because the pressure is less obvious.

What can we do?

We should begin by recognising that these are decidedly uncertain times and as a result, anxiety will be high.  Any actions we can take to reduce our own anxiety will benefit not only ourselves but those around us as well.  Here are three things that each of us can do right away.

Look out for each other

Random acts of kindness are empowering. They not only benefit the recipient but also the giver.

 

The Review, a local bookshop in Peckham, had to close its doors to protect its staff from Covid-19. When a local resident asked for help for a birthday present for her son, the owner of the bookstore made several suggestions, took the order over the phone, and got the book to the worried mum in plenty of time.  That business owner went above and beyond to help someone she didn’t even know simply because she could.  In the process she made loyal customer for life and got some very genuine, positive publicity for her bookstore.  But that wasn’t her goal; she just wanted to help someone in need.

 

There are numerous opportunities to help the people around us. Can you go to the pharmacy for an elderly neighbour?  Volunteer at a nursing home or school?  Help a colleague at work?  Tutor a student no longer in school?  Walk a dog? Wash a car?  We can all make a difference in our local community and small gestures of kindness can have enormous impact.

 

Among other things, these gestures help to build social capital precisely as societal structures appear to be eroding.  They help restore our faith in our humanity despite the negative stories surrounding us.

Fight social isolation

Social distancing measures are designed to slow the spread of the virus by limiting face-to-face interactions.  The clear public health advantages, however, come at a psychological cost; we humans are social creatures and isolation pains us.  There is a reason why solitary confinement is the most severe form of punishment in prison.

 

In vulnerable populations, social isolation is particularly dangerous.  Young people suffering from anxiety and depression often become isolated from friends and family, particularly in times of stress. Similarly, the elderly can lose social contact due to mobility issues or even dementia.  In both the young and the old, chronic loneliness can badly affect physical and mental health through intensification of depression, anxiety, and stress, a greater chance of heart disease, and an increased risk of mortality. Humans are not meant to be alone.

 

Thankfully, there are many ways to fight social isolation. Perhaps the best is to just check in on friends, colleagues and family.  Ring them or Facetime.  Skype or just shout over the fence.  You could even learn Silbo, the whistle language of La Gomera, and communicate from miles away.  The social events you can join from your sofa are nearly endless and the best part is that as you look after other people, you help yourself at the same time.

Discover new opportunities

Uncertainty brings anxiety and stress but it also brings opportunities.  On Twitter I’ve seen great discussions of the technological challenges of online music lessons, ways for choirs to practice together without meeting up, and the best platforms for sharing great board games.  Now I want to learn how to play One Night Werewolf; sounds badass.

 

In the real world, my daughter and I have decided it’s time to get ripped, but also to work on flexibility like we always promised we would when we finally found the time.  When we finally go back to club sports, we will be ready.

 

Companies can also take advantage of opportunities.  Pret a Manger’s chief operating officer, Pano Christou, announced that health service workers are entitled to free hot drinks as well as 50% off all other items at all Pret shops.  It’s a great move: a low cost way of supporting the local community in a time of crisis.

 

Others may find they are able to diversify their offerings.  Companies like Uber, Deliveroo, and Just Eat have the infrastructure to deliver far more than just food.  They may find they have the capacity to branch out and support vulnerable people through the delivery of medicines, pharmaceuticals and other supplies.

 

Try to identify these new prospects and give some a try.  Alexander Graham Bell famously said, “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”  Don’t miss that door!

What's next?

As time progresses, the overwhelming uncertainty around us will reduce.  Doctors and scientists will learn more about Covid-19 and that knowledge will be being mobilised to help us.  Governments are already converging on temporary solutions.  Businesses are adjusting to the new economic and social reality.  We as individuals are learning to maintain social distance without self-isolation and discovering what “working from home” really means.

 

No one knows how long the situation will persist so the longer we successfully manage our anxiety, the happier we will be.  If we look out for each other, find alternatives to social isolation, and explore new opportunities we stand our best chance of taking control of our situation and reducing maladaptive behaviours like panic buying.

About the Author

Prof. Joseph Devlin

Chief Scientific Officer, Co-Founder

Joe's PhD is in Artificial Intelligence but he found himself much more interested in natural intelligence -- how the human mind works. After training in neuroimaging at Cambridge and Oxford, he established a reputation as a leading researcher in how the human brain processes language. He is a former Head of Experimental Psychology at UCL as well as the current Vice Dean for Innovation and Enterprise. He has collaborated on various projects with a variety of media partners, including the BBC, the Times, Guardian and Daily Telegraph.

Joe has published more than 60 scientific articles in international journals.

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