“Where did all the toilet roll go?” The psychology of panic buying

Written by Lauren Geall

As talk of a second national lockdown to curb the rise in coronavirus infections drives people to the supermarkets, the phenomenon of panic buying is making headlines once again. But where does this impulse to stockpile come from, and how can we resist the urge to shop? Stylist investigates.

Updated 21 September: Looking at the news this morning was like being transported back in time to March, when the coronavirus pandemic first hit the UK. With articles questioning the possibility of a second lockdown and guides on how to recognise coronavirus symptoms, everything felt depressingly familiar.

But out of all the scaremongering headlines and upsetting updates, there was one story in particular that felt particularly groan-worthy: the return of panic buying. With the second wave of coronavirus has come the second wave of empty shelves and booked delivery slots.

And supermarkets are already having to take action to curb this behaviour – Morrisons has announced it will be reinstating marshals at their doors to limit the number of shoppers coming in and out, and Ocado and Sainsbury’s have already pasted notices on their online shopping pages warning customers they’re experiencing high demand.

Despite the fact that supermarkets didn’t shut during the first lockdown, many people are still feeling the need to stockpile in response to the latest coronavirus news. So where does this behaviour come from? And how can we resist the urge to follow suit? Stylist investigates. 

As reported 18 March: If there’s one thing the coronavirus outbreak has shown us, it’s that a lot can change in a week. 

Up and down the country, people are now taking panic buying to a whole other level, despite the fact that government advice has warned people not to panic buy because of coronavirus fears. And it’s causing supply shortages across the country.

Of course, the UK isn’t alone in this behaviour. Earlier this year, mass demand for rice and instant noodles in Singapore prompted the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to speak out and assure people that there was enough to go around, empty shelves in Australia have sparked fears of a toilet paper shortage and shoppers in Malaysia have driven an 800% increase in weekly hand sanitiser sales.

All of this is, of course, fuelled by our fear of the coronavirus. As the number of confirmed cases continue to rise, so do our anxiety levels. And although we know we shouldn’t be stockpiling, and that buying two items instead of one probably isn’t necessary, the panic and empty shelves around us makes it harder to resist. So where does this impulse come from?

“Not many human decisions are entirely conscious, hardly any actually. Our minds use quick decision shortcuts to be able to faster react to danger and survive,” explains consumer psychologist Kate Nightingale. “Since the information communicated is really frequent and often very dire, our mind assumes the problem is even worse than it actually is.

“In such a fight-or-flight mental state our minds are incapable of calculating real odds of us getting sick. This is where something called availability heuristic kicks in.

“The more we are exposed to certain news, the more probable we feel the event described in the news is. Since we are hearing of people getting sick constantly, we believe it is more likely to happen to us. The fight or flight starts and our behaviour becomes even more automatic.”

As for why we’re all suddenly obsessed with toilet roll? Nightingale explains that it’s all to do with the needs we view as “basic”.

“Basic needs are something we don’t pay too much attention to when everything is good. However, when there is a perception of an existential danger, our focus drops to the lower layers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Basic Needs,” she says. “So food, hygiene and likely sex become even more fundamental, with safety and security coming straight after.”

According to Nightingale, our instinct to panic buy is driven by a number of key psychological factors, each of which make us more susceptible to this kind of impulsive behaviour. The first of these – mortality salience – comes into play when a story or event like coronavirus reminds us of our vulnerability.

“When people are reminded about their mortality, they become more impulsive,” Nightingale says. “This can result in overspending.”

Another notable cause for the kind of panic buying we’ve seen during the coronavirus outbreak is, of course, peer pressure, as Nightingale explains: “We are social animals who rely on belonging to a group for survival, so we are willing to compromise our better judgement for the sake of being accepted.”

The theory of social proof is also another reason why we’re likely to follow the behaviours of others. Basically, when we see other people being worried about something, we feel the need to be worried too – and that transforms into our need to take action when we see other people doing so.

As Nightingale explains: “Everyone is buying things out, so we feel like we should be too: that if other people are doing it, then the danger must be real.” 

How to stop yourself from panic buying

It’s completely understandable and normal to feel a little worried about coronavirus, but it’s also important to keep your anxiety levels under control. 

Panic buying doesn’t help anyone – it actually hurts some of the most vulnerable people in society. At the beginning of the pandemic, food banks across Britain ran out of staples including milk and cereal as a result of people panic-buying. And panic buying tampons also makes them less accessible to the women who need them. It’s integral that we all try to keep calm and follow the latest government advice instead of trying to take matters into our own hands.

Because our impulse to panic buy is fuelled by the anxiety we feel in response to the coronavirus outbreak, one of the best things we can do to stop ourselves from buying too much is staying on top of our anxiety levels and only acting on official information. Buying lots of things may help to lower your anxiety levels in the short term and help you feel more in control, but in the long term, it’s better to find healthy coping methods.

“Knowledge helps,” Nightingale says. “The more we realise the power of these subconscious influences on our decisions and actions, the less influential they become and the more we are able to stop the automatic impulse and rather think our decisions through.”

So next time you go to pick up an extra hand soap or bag of pasta while you’re in the shop, stop for a second and consider what’s actually driving you to make that decision.

Just as we all have a responsibility to follow government advice and practise social distancing in order to stem the spread of the virus, so too do we have a responsibility to stop anxiety from spreading – and refraining from panic buying is a great place to start.

Images: Unsplash/Getty

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