Insights into Psychology

What Is… Panic Buying

Contributors to panic buying, leading to attempts to gain some control

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is panic buying.

Panic buying has been in the news in the UK recently, and I’m sure everyone remembers the great toilet paper crisis of 2020. This phenomenon has occurred a number of times over the past century. Humanity creates some strange problems for ourselves, and panic buying is the kind of problem we create for ourselves. I’ve written before about herd behaviour (tapping into our inner sheeple), but I was curious to find out more about panic buying, in particular, and what, if anything, might be able to stop it.

Panic buying is “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 results in demand-side scarcity.

In terms of the petrol situation in the UK, it sounds like the supply is fine. There are some issues with the supply chain involving a lack of tanker drivers; however, the reason so many stations are out of fuel is scarcity created by panic buying.

Contributors to panic buying

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 attempting to gain some control over a situation where it feels like there has been a loss of control

People with right-wing authoritarian views tend to have a strong sensitivity to perceived threats, and are more likely to panic buy, as are people who have high intolerance of uncertainty or high levels of paranoia (the cognitive pattern, not specifically delusions). Parents of young children tend to be more concerned about the consequences of shortages, and are more likely to panic buy.

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 focus is correlated with a decrease in panic buying. Having a greater capacity for reflection and analytical thinking may help to reduce the chances of panic buying.

Buying behaviours

People evaluate stressors and decide on actions accordingly. The evaluation process includes a subjective appraisal, which is influenced by the factors already mentioned. Because it’s all so subjective, not everyone will react the same way to the exact same situation. Seeing how other people are appraising the same situation can influence our own appraisals. We may also base our own behaviour on our predictions of other people’s behaviours. If I expect everyone else to behave selfishly, I’m more likely to focus on looking out for myself.

When people engage in panic buying, it can be a means of conformity to others’ responses to the perceived threat, and it can ease FOMO (fear of missing out). It’s not an adaptive coping mechanism, but it serves as a coping mechanism all the same; it’s a way to try to alleviate negative feelings associated with uncertainty and reduce the perceived lack of control.

The current situation

While the UK’s petrol crisis is not directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is occurring during a time of a high level of uncertainty in the context of factors like the pandemic and Brexit. Also, unpredictability around lockdowns increases uncertainty about how much people will be able to get out and access things. All of this uncertainty produces high level of anxiety and fear, which can significantly impact consumers’ buying behaviour. Uncertainty can also reduce impulse control, making people more likely to act on urges to panic buy.

Dodgy decisions on the part of governments throughout the pandemic have fuelled a lot of mistrust among the public. I don’t think there’s much trust right now that government can handle issues like this.

COVID has also taken away a lot of people’s sense of control, and various segments of society have reacted to that in some strange ways, including the vigorous anti-masking and anti-vaxxing. People don’t want to feel powerless; they want to take charge of their own destiny, even if what they’re doing doesn’t actually help anything. It still gives the sense of doing something, and people may choose to delude themselves that the majority of people know what they’re doing even if the government doesn’t seem to know.

Scarcity has already been on people’s minds after numerous shortages in 2020, and images of scarcity confirms fears that were already lurking not far beneath the surface. Information about scarcity being repeated often in the media and social media fuels the mere exposure effect, a type of cognitive bias that means the more we see something, the more we believe that it’s true.

What can be done about it?

Retailers

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 in multiple occasions or 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

Government officials

Officials should 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.

Media

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 limit 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.

What now?

After reading up on this issue, I’m not really seeing any more clear solutions than before I started. We can’t magically change the cognitive biases that drive our inner sheeple, nor can we make people suddenly able to tolerate uncertainty and think analytically. With social media, it’s pretty much impossible to stop the spread of problematic messaging.

I don’t know what the answer is, although once things have clearly started to get out of hand, I’m inclined to favour quotas and telling people wanting to fill jerry cans of fuel to fuck off. Of course, that could very well get someone assaulted. What do you do when human beings simply suck?

Do you have any thoughts on how to prevent or deal with this kind of thing?

Sources

  • 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 one16(1), e0246339.
  • Cooper, M. A., & Gordon, J. L. (2021). Understanding Panic Buying Through an Integrated Psychodynamic Lens. Frontiers in Public Health9, 334.
  • McMaster University Optimal Aging Portal (2020): Pandemics and Panic Buying
  • Patent, V. (2021). Panic buying and how to stop it. OpenLearn.
  • Taylor, S. (2021). Understanding and managing pandemic-related panic buying. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 102364.
The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

33 thoughts on “What Is… Panic Buying”

  1. I’m among the income-impaired so when it comes to the panic-buy, I remain SOL. Luckily, my anxiety sees me maintain a pretty consistent level of refills. I shop to top up. I think you touched on a really good point – the media. They push our lives in this direction or that far more than people realize, often with a negative result. Great post 💖

  2. I didn’t panic buy per se here last time because (1) I usually have double of everything I need on hand at all times (OCD, hello!), and (2) there isn’t room in my condo for 80,000 rolls of TP. I don’t have a storage space or a garage, just normal cabinets/closets. That said, I kept a lookout whenever shopping for an extra container of Lysol wipes or whatever seemed to be hard to get. For some odd reason, boxes of pasta were flying off the shelves, so I bought 2 boxes. It took me 6 months to use them because we prefer rice…

    I did buy what I thought were large alcohol wipes when they were saying to wipe groceries, purses, keys, etc., but they turned out to be teeny squares to disinfect before a shot. LOL

  3. I think providing specific information to customers about when stock will be replaced is a key piece of this. If people know and trust the retailer and see stock being replenished as scheduled and communicated, maybe the panic buying will decrease? Excellent food for thought.

  4. That is an excellent post, thank you. I was wondering last year about all the empty shelves while at the same time Poland didn’t have this problem at all. I came up with the explanation that we, Polish, having experience communism and related lack of everything, still remember that it’s possible to cope even though there’s only vinegar on the shelf in a shoe shop (yes, that’s a real example). We also know that the process of buying items under pressure that they may run out is stressful and not worth of the reward.

    That’s my assumption anyway.

    1. That makes a lot of sense. In places where scarcity has been a reality, it’s probably a lot less shocking than in countries where people are accustomed to an abundant supply of everything.

  5. This is fantastic – a must read for all the actual panic buyers!

    In the UK, we did technically have enough supply. There could have been some shortage because the lack of tanker drivers, but it wouldn’t have been like this. Stations are empty because of panic buyers – people filling their tanks when they don’t need petrol, then the selfish morons bringing everything from actual petrol cans to dozens of water bottles to fill up. The media has certainly whipped it up though, and that triggered the morons to flock to the stations.

    I kicked myself because for a few weeks now I’ve been meaning to fill up. Never imagined this would have happened. I got lucky because I only had enough to do one more shopping trip, and when I turned up the store had just had a petrol delivery and the queue wasn’t too bad so I’ve now got enough to get to my hospital appointments. I was worried for a minute there that I’d have to rob a 5yr old girl of her bike to get to the hospital. xx

    1. I’m glad you were able to get some. The people going way over the top with the water bottles and all of that nonsense can do serious harm to people who really need to be able to get around.

  6. Oh I really loved this one!. I think so many valid points are in this. See when I was told about this oil situation I never listen to anyone or the news by the way I do my own digging. So what I found is exactly what you said however they made it seem or what some interpreted was there was a situation with low oil not lack of oil drivers!. Ugh it’s so frustrating to me I do wish people would take their time to really figure it out of what’s being said so we can go based on facts not what is being misinformation.

    1. I’m in Canada, and often international news here is presented a little more reasonably because we’re somewhat removed. In this case, though our news is also blaming a lack of oil tanker drivers rather than people’s behaviour, which is so frustrating.

      1. Very interesting to find out how we are so different!. I have to say for me as being in the US they will jump to create the story without giving full context. They kinda wanna give a certain narrative ( twisting the real narrative). Then people get in all sorts of panic and it’s truly ashame because it will create a distrust for not just social media or news outlets but where the information is coming from. We already have this issue within the people and government. I really just try to do my end for my sake and double check the facts if I listened to half of the people I would be a mess 😅.

          1. Yes ma’am they are! It’s why I don’t watch it read it if I do again I do make sure to do my end. Thanks for the blog very nicely done and good conversation thanks! Awesome for educating people.

  7. This was an excellent article. It evoked an image I saw in the spin-off series Fear The Walking Dead where they displayed this exact thing with some of the peripheral characters. I thought they did a good job portraying this type of panic buying behavior which we saw in 2020 as you pointed out. It was almost like foreshadowing…

    This lack of control over destiny or self is definitely something that we’re all struggling with now. I think this entire thing with covid has been mismanaged almost from the get-go (here in 🇨🇦) but I was willing to turn a blind eye to the stumbling around of government officials and media during the first year simply because it was such a new thing that had never happened to before in our lifetime. At least not at this scale.

    But.

    It’s phenomenal really to see that people are still acting as if they don’t have any common sense or logic.

    I often purchase extra items when I see a good sale, but not 17 cases of it… Yet I have heard from various friends who have aging parents who used to and still do this exact thing. My high school friend had to help clear out her childhood home and was astonished that there were out of date cereal boxes with expiration dates dating back 10 or 20 years stacked in the basement. Perhaps that wasn’t a case of panic buying but it might be a little bit related… Maybe they thought they would run out of money, saw the Kmart blue light special, and purchase 10 cases of Corn Flakes in order to keep themselves from starving should their income be impacted next month.

  8. I think that if we want to resolve the question of preventing the people from panic-buying, we might want to ask what it is that will make the people ration their supplies from the get go, as opposed to hoarding supplies when we consider the possibility of a shortage.

  9. Sometimes companies espeCially when they are dealing in monoply type of products they created a condition of short supply to increase the demand and aromatically a panic buying comes into which increse the price and sale volume as people buy the quantities higher than their needs

  10. I’m in Australia. We had the toilet paper panic buying issue last year and again this year. I don’t get it. But your post today has helped a bit. Weirdly, I am a person who does not cope well with uncertainty at all BUT I have never panic bought toilet paper! I’m proud. 🤣

  11. This feels like such a throwback to when Covid hit and people stocked up on toilet paper (because really…stocking on foods was clearly not the most important 😂). The first time I saw empty shelves and no paper at all in the store it hit me: Oh sh*t, people actually do this – herd behaviour or not. Thanks for sharing Ashley 😊

  12. This may sound strange, but I think one way to control panic buying is to acknowledge the validity of the fear that is driving it.
    The reality is that during the pandemic with lockdowns looming and/or already in place, the potential for lockdowns to get stricter, major supply chain issues, and particularly in the beginning of the pandemic when we really knew so little about coronavirus, it really wasn’t ridiculous to believe that opportunities to get supplies were/would be limited and that one should stock up. Of course, panic buying only exacerbates the problem. But if the government were to say “don’t panic buy, just trust us and it will be fine”, to people who know the government has no more idea or control over the supply chain than they do, it only adds to the feeling of mistrust and fuels more panic buying.

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