In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is herd behaviour.
Are we people or sheeple?
It turns out we’re actually a lot more sheeplish than we might like to think that we are, and herd behaviour is exhibited across a range of different contexts.
Kameda and Hastie (2015) describe herding as an ” alignment of thoughts or behaviours of individuals in a group” that tends to arise from local interactions rather than as a result of direction by a central authority. Equivalents of herding among land mammals include birds’ flocking behaviour and bees’ hive behaviour.
As a cultural species, we naturally draw upon socially acquired knowledge and social narratives. A classic social psychology experiment by Soloman Asch showed that people tend to publicly conform to group norms, even when they realize the norm is based on something that’s inaccurate. Conformity can also help to ease FOMO (fear of missing out).
Novel vs. familiar threats
New threats that aren’t well understood are most likely to provoke herd behaviour responses. Car crashes regularly kill people (36,560 in the U.S. in 2018), but no one has been changing their car use behaviour because of that. The influenza virus kills large numbers of people each year (12,000-61,000 annually in the U.S. according to the CDC) yet plenty of people choose not to get vaccinated. Suicide kills more than 700,000 people globally every year (as per the WHO), but no one seems to be panicking about that.
Panic buying is one type of herd behaviour. It’s a “behavioral phenomenon of a sudden increase in consumption and quantity of one or more necessary goods which is provoked by an adverse situation, which results in a disparity between supply and demand” (Cooper & Gordon, 2021). Even when the supply is adequate, a spike in demand far beyond what the supply chain is set up to cater to ends up leading to demand-side scarcity.
Panic buying during the pandemic
Panic buying has happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, and while things like masks and hand sanitizer are logically connected, the toilet paper frenzy is a clear example of herd behaviour. There’s no logical reason to hoard toilet paper, and it clearly has no impact on whether or not people get sick, yet store shelves are empty and people are fighting over the last couple of rolls.
The first concerns about the toilet paper supply related to the COVID pandemic were tweets from Hong Kong on February 5. A month later, the toilet paper panic buying had already spread globally. Stories and images on news sites and social media played a pivotal role in creating a global frenzy.
A systematic review summarized by McMaster University found four factors that influence panic buying during health crises:
- perceived threat and scarcity of products
- psychosocial factors: exposure to misinformation and rumours, high levels of social mistrust, and a lack of information that leads people to imitate what the majority are (or seem to be) doing
- fear of the unknown
- coping behaviour: panic buying is an attempt to gain some control over a situation where it feels like there has been a loss of control
Who panic buys?
People with right-wing authoritarian views tend to have a strong sensitivity to perceived threats and are more likely to panic buy. The same is true for people who have high intolerance of uncertainty or high levels of paranoia (the cognitive pattern, not specifically delusions).
Income can also make a difference. Those with high incomes have a higher purchasing capacity and are more likely to panic buy. People whose incomes are falling (e.g. due to job loss) are also more likely to engage in this behaviour. People with low incomes or limited ability to get out and shop may be shit outta luck.
A focus on regret and worry tends to increase the likelihood of an individual engaging in panic buying, while present-moment awareness, reflection, and analytical thinking can reduce the likelihood. The way that we appraise stressful situations can be influenced by the way we think other people are appraising the same situation. If I expect everyone else to behave selfishly, I’m more likely to focus on looking out for myself.
Preventing panic buying
In the articles I came across, there was disagreement around recommendations for retailers to handle these situations. Some sources suggested imposing quotas and prohibiting bulk buying to prevent running out of stock and having empty shelves that fuel scarcity fears. Other sources suggested that quotas themselves would feed into a perception of scarcity, and would lead to people shopping on multiple occasions or in multiple places.
Other strategies that vendors might use to address panic buying include:
- encourage online ordering and delivery to avoid people seeing empty shelves and long lines
- arrange products on shelves in a way that reduces the appearance of scarcity
- provide specific information to customers about when stocks will be replaced
- provide special access times for certain key groups, like parents of young children or disabled people and frontline workers
Officials should deliver clear, consistent, and repeated messaging about availability. It may be more effective to focus on reassurances about the existence of an adequate supply to meet normal demand rather than simply telling people not to panic. They could also point out the negative consequences and harms to others that can result from panic buying. One source (Taylor, 2021) suggested that it may be helpful to tell people that panic buying is a short-lived phenomenon that typically lasts 7-10 days, although I’m not sure how willing people would be to accept that given how long the run on toilet paper went on.
Promoting a sense of kinship, altruism, and generosity with others may help to reduce the sense that people need to compete with their neighbours for access to goods.
The media play an important role in public perceptions of scarcity. Publishing pictures of lines and empty shelves, especially on social media, fuels perceptions of scarcity. The people in charge should be giving adequate information to the media to communicate to the public that the supply chain is stable and the government will intervene as necessary.
Social media can be a recipe for disaster. Images of scarcity can be a cue that social norms and expectations have been violated. That signals to people that they can’t rely on their normal behaviours. New norms are then signalled by images of panic buying behaviours. No matter how much the traditional media limits the publication of images, it’s going to happen anyway on social media. Social media platforms could (but probably won’t) play an important role in preventing the amplification of such messaging.
Avoiding herd behaviour in general
I suspect that most people would deny herd behaviour even if they are engaging it. After all, if it was logical, people wouldn’t be hoarding toilet paper in the first place. I would be curious how much of a difference social media has made in all of this. The news media have their own share of sensationalism, but it seems like social media selectively amplifies the most sensational content.
Once we get caught up in sensationalism and fear kicks in, it’s rather late in the process to avoid sheepling. Perhaps the best thing to do is to limit exposure, especially to social media feeds filled with fear-provoking content. It’s also helpful to be aware of that natural tendency to become sheeple, so we can more easily recognize and then resist the pull in that direction.
- Arafat, S. Y., Kar, S. K., & Kabir, R. (2020). Possible controlling measures of panic buying during COVID-19. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1-3.
- Bentall, R. P., Lloyd, A., Bennett, K., McKay, R., Mason, L., Murphy, J., … & Shevlin, M. (2021). Pandemic buying: Testing a psychological model of over-purchasing and panic buying using data from the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. PloS one, 16(1), e0246339.
- Cooper, M. A., & Gordon, J. L. (2021). Understanding panic buying through an integrated psychodynamic lens. Frontiers in Public Health, 9, 334.
- Kameda, T., & Hastie, R. (2015). Herd behavior. Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 1-14.
- McMaster University Optimal Aging Portal. (2020). Pandemics and panic buying.
- Patent, V. (2021). Panic buying and how to stop it. OpenLearn.
- Schmidt, M. (2020). Why coronavirus is turning people into hoarders: A Q&A on the psychology of pandemics. Discover Magazine.
- Taylor, S. (2021). Understanding and managing pandemic-related panic buying. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 102364.
- Wikipedia: Panic buying
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.