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7 Reasons for Panic-Buying Behavior

How do our minds cope with uncertainty?

Christopher Corneschi /Creative Commons
Source: Christopher Corneschi /Creative Commons

What explains the rise of panic-buying of foods and stockpiling toilet paper during the outbreak of coronavirus?

1. Two ways of thinking. We have two levels of decisions. At the basic level, individual decisions are best understood as the interactions between the logical brain and the emotional brain. The two systems use different operations. The logical brain calculates and considers the evidence. The emotional brain is intuitive, fast, mostly automatic, and not very accessible to conscious awareness. The logical mind tells us, “No, I don’t need to buy another roll of toilet paper.” But the emotional brain says, “Well, I better be safe than sorry.” Our emotional mind is highly attuned to visual imagery, and we’ve seen graphic images of people on social media and news media wearing masks and so forth.

2. Anticipatory anxiety. People are experiencing anticipatory anxiety. Anticipatory anxiety is the fear and dread you experience before the event. For example, when you spend weeks dreading the result of a medical appointment or preparing for an interview. As we’ve seen in the coronavirus pandemic, the fear reaches well before the actual infection.

3. Fear is contagious. Just like a virus, fear has a tendency to spread from person to person. This may occur even though there was initially no rational basis for fear. As a result, a group of people unknown to one another may spontaneously come to adopt emotional unity. With panic-buying, people feel, “If they’re doing it, I better do it, too.”

4. Herd mentality. Herd mentality is another cause of panic buying. As social beings, we interpret the danger of the situation based on how other people react. When the herd instinct kicks in, people suspend judgment and start doing what everyone else is doing. So, if everyone else is panic-buying foods, people follow the herd.

5. Intolerance of uncertainty. Intolerance of uncertainty can be defined as the inability to accept the possibility that a negative outcome may occur in the future, regardless of the probability of its occurrence. What makes coronavirus particularly frustrating for some people is the fact that there are a lot of unknowns about it—when or where it may occur, or how intense it will be. Particularly, people with preexisting anxiety disorders tend to be intolerant of uncertainty or worry a lot about minor things. They are constantly checking news sources and getting frightened at the images they see.

6. A sense of control. Also relevant to uncertainty is uncontrollability. People want to find a way of staying in control of the situation. The nature of this virus is such that the outcome remains unchanged irrespective of any actions an individual may take. Control can be thought of as the belief that one has at one’s disposal a response that can influence the outcome. And that could contribute to frenzy shopping. Panic buying helps people feel in control of the situation.

7. Misinformation and rumors. The late psychologist Steuart Henderson Britt once remarked, “One person says there could be a problem. The next person says there probably is a problem. The next person says there is a problem.” We are more than ever vulnerable to the proliferation of misinformation, especially in the midst of a crisis. In the age of interconnectedness, misinformation spread by the public on social media is reaching millions of people around the world in a flash. For example, in Tokyo, false information in social media about a paper shortage due to coronavirus in China resulted in panic buying of toilet paper. The government assured the public that they have sufficient inventory and almost all the toilet paper is domestically produced.

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
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