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The psychology behind panic buying (and what we can do to resist it)

Empty cold and flu medicine shelves are shown at a Target store
REUTERS/Mike Blake
Empty cold and flu medicine shelves are shown at a Target store in Encinitas, California, on March 2.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted widespread panic buying, with people stripping stores of hand sanitizers, face masks, toilet paper, hand soap, thermometers, medications — just about anything they fear will soon disappear from the shelves.

Some of that buying is rational, such as making sure you have enough medication to treat chronic medical conditions, for example. But much of it is irrational, such as filling up a shopping cart with toilet paper rolls (and then having a fistfight over it).

As BBC reporter Bryan Lufkin points out in an article on the psychology of panic buying, there are real-world consequences to such behavior, for panic buying “can drive up prices and take essential goods out of the hands of people who need them most (such as face masks for health workers).”

So why do people do it? “Experts say the answer lies in a fear of the unknown, and believing that a dramatic event warrants a dramatic response — even though, in this case, the best response is something as mundane as washing your hands,” writes Lufkin.

A desire for control

As one of those experts, Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia and author of the book “The Psychology of Pandemics,” told Lufkin, panic buying gives people a sense of control.

“Under circumstances like these, people feel the need to do something that’s proportionate to what they perceive is the level of the crisis,” Taylor said. “We know that washing your hands and practicing coughing hygiene is all you need to do at this point.”

“But for many people, hand-washing seems to be too ordinary,” he added. “This is a dramatic event, therefore a dramatic response is required, so that leads to people throwing money at things in hopes of protecting themselves.”

The need for risk aversion

Experts also say panic buying can be understood as the intersection of three powerful psychological phenomena: herd behavior, loss aversion and regret.

“Herd behaviour explains why we like to buy popular products, or join queues without knowing where they’re going,” writes Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reporter James Purtill in an article attempting to make sense of why so many people have felt a need to stockpile toilet paper. “Loss aversion is about our fear of missing out — we tend to think it’s better to have extra of something than miss out.”

As David Savage, a behavioral economist at the University of Newcastle told Purtill, “The bigger problem for us is when loss aversion starts to kick in and we start thinking about what would happen if I currently have the opportunity to buy this product and I choose not to, and then down the track, when I am isolated, I run out, that’s when we hit regret.”

“Regret is a really, really powerful motivator. It actually makes us feel way worse than just loss,” he added. “Not only is it missing out on something, it’s missing out on something that I had the choice to fix. That’s a really big kicker, that one.”

How not to become a panic buyer

So, what are the alternatives to panic buying? How do we overcome these strong psychological urges? Here’s what Lufkin concludes after interviewing many experts:

A better plan than panic buying would be to be prepared all year round for possible emergencies or crises. It’s also worth keeping everyone else’s needs in mind as these types of events unfold: stock up on what you and your family need, but avoid the urge to hoard enough supplies to fill a doomsday bunker. Because when individual panic buying plays out collectively, that’s what can lead to price gouging, or low supplies for high-risk individuals who need things like face masks more than the general population does.

It’s also worth noting that quality sources of information are always vital for avoiding rumours and falsities. In Japan, social media rumours erroneously claimed toilet and tissue paper supplies were running low as China would no longer export these products. To stop panic buying, local officials and industry associations had to make statements reminding people that almost all toilet and tissue paper was locally manufactured and there were plenty of supplies.

If you feel the urge to do some panic buying, stop and ask yourself what you’re really afraid of — and then think of the effect that your unnecessary stockpiling will have on others.

As the head of a British food bank told Guardian reporter Robert Booth, “Panic is going to be more dangerous than the virus. Our food parcels are essential for the health of many of the people we support. The food can be a lifeline.”

“Please,” she added, “if you are stockpiling, have a look and say: ‘Am I really going to use this?’ If not, is there someone who needs it more?”

FMI:  You’ll find information on useful steps you can take to prepare and prevent your family for the COVID-19 pandemic on the Minnesota Department of Health’s website.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Elsa Mack on 03/13/2020 - 08:51 am.

    I cannot understand the fixation on toilet paper. It’s not that hard to think of alternatives. In some parts of the world, people don’t even use it—they just wash with soap and water.

    I did stock up on non-perishable and frozen foods, because I figure I’ll use them eventually even if I don’t need them in the coming weeks. And I was glad to get a new thermometer, the last on the shelf at my pharmacy. But toilet paper? Eh. I’ve been camping. I can manage.

  2. Submitted by Sandra Lewis on 03/14/2020 - 04:36 am.

    I think it’s extremely presumptuous to call this phenomenon “panic buying”. The store shelves were cleared because of the retail industry’s reliance on just-in-time inventory management and far flung suppliers. This situation has exposed the fact that customers’ needs cannot be met therefore they buy what they can when they can because of a real threat.

    With that said, this is the main reason I have been prepared well ahead of the curve, by decades, and ill-considered journalism has labeled my type of preparation behavior “crazy”. Who’s crazy now?

    Between “panic buyers” and “crazy preppers” (Chicken Little versus The Little Red Hen) there is another class of shopper–the ostriches who poked their heads up out of the sand for a moment and realized the world just changed. Instead of acknowledging that they may have just failed a fundamental component of human survival they reach for labels and self-righteous indignation instead.

    If indeed there are alternatives, as the article stated, there is no need to feel left out if you aren’t prepared. Soap and water, washable rags, squeeze-bottle bidets, and newspaper inserts replace toilet paper. Scarves replace masks if you are already unhealthy, sick, or afraid. Gloves replace hand sanitizer. And herbal remedies and chicken soup replace over-the-counter remedies because they work. Knowledge and skill trump labels every time.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 03/14/2020 - 02:37 pm.

      Have to disagree. Many of the suppliers are not that far away. There is no need for many to hoard tp and other supplies when they are not ill, causing others who are ill to go without. Stores base items on past sales. And now that they are limiting some items, some people are whining about it. It is panic buying by some. This is not a short term pandemic and stores can restock, but it takes time to ship and they also have limited storage as well.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 03/15/2020 - 04:49 am.

      Many “preppers” are in fact “crazy”, paranoia, delusional visions of personal valor and glory, and antisocial behavior. Fact of the matter is that lots of folks store things in case of emergency, “preppers” change their lifestyle in unhealthy ways to revolve around this practice.

  3. Submitted by Jeffrey Swainhart on 03/16/2020 - 07:17 am.

    I remember during the oil crisis in the 70s that people were lining up and keeping their tanks full which made the crisis worse.

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