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