“Why did I just buy 36 toilet rolls?”: The psychology of panic buying

Written by Lauren Geall

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to grow, supermarkets up and down the country are being faced with unprecedented demand as people stock up. But where does this impulse to panic buy come from? Stylist investigates.

Before we get into any of this, I want to make one thing clear: I am actually reasonably calm about the whole coronavirus situation. Don’t get me wrong – I’m washing my hands and following all the latest government advice – but compared to some of my more concerned friends and family members, I’m quite calm.

But when I went to the shop at the weekend to pick up some bread, something rather peculiar happened: I bought two bottles of soap. It was a subconscious, almost mindless decision – as I watched the other shoppers load what was left of the store’s toilet paper stock into their trollies and read the “two sanitisers per customer” sign with complete dismay, it suddenly felt necessary to pick up a few things “just in case”.

As I’m sure you’re already aware, I wasn’t the only one picking up a few extra items over the weekend. Up and down the country, people have been bulk buying in their droves – with commodities including pasta, toilet paper, hand soap and hand sanitiser now completely sold out in most places. Panic buying has taken over the nation – and supermarkets have now had to begin placing purchase limits on the items under the most demand. 

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. But why does this make us more likely to panic buy?

“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 – so 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 by stockpiling and bulk buying.

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 health guidelines 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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