Panic buying is what people naturally do when faced with an imminent disaster, like the spread of the coronavirus. Whilst it may seem irrational, it actually has a psychologically rational basis.
Panic buying toilet paper has become a major focus in the media and supermarket shelves have been stripped bare. There have been fights in stores over toilet roll and I saw one guy running down the aisle to grab a packet. It’s pretty crazy! Why is everyone so panicked about loo roll? Let’s have a look at the psychology to find out.
The role of the media
The media have played a major role in creating anxiety in people with regards to running out of essential items and food. All we see in the news every day, is coverage of shops running out of items and reports of panic buying. There were even some reports of people fighting over toilet roll.
They had experts debating whether shops would be able to keep up with demand and would we run out of food? These reports went on not just for days, but weeks, and if they didn’t have an effect on you at first, the cumulative daily reporting becomes an internal ear worm. And, if you weren’t worried about how many toilet rolls were in your home, you soon had that nagging voice in your head about whether you should be going out and buying more, you know just in case…
It’s become a self fulfilling prophecy
When the media continuously show us images of empty toilet roll shelves, it enhances our belief that this problem might exist in our own local supermarkets. We begin to worry that when we next go shopping we might see empty shelves too. The more people who see these images and news reports, the more likely they’ll be to pick up extra toilet roll on their next shop and soon enough it becomes a real problem and there are empty shelves in your local supermarket. Your belief of what would happen, became your behaviour – you made it a reality.
Toilet paper is a cleanliness product
The main messages we’re being given about Covid19 are all about hygiene and cleanliness. We’re being told to wash our hands, not touch our face, not to get too close to other people… Toilet paper is a cleanliness product and therefore, buying it adds to that sense of feeling more clean and this makes us feel more secure, as we feel like we’re following the advice.
We’re a social species that imitates what others are doing. So when we see that a large amount of people are acting in a certain way, we have a very natural instinct to copy this behaviour. When you see images of empty shelves and hear that your friends are all stockpiling toilet rolls, you think to yourself, “Well, maybe I should be doing this too.”
When other people hoard and they share images of empty shelves all over social media, it sets an example for others to imitate.
If everyone else on the Titanic is running for the lifeboats, you’re going to run too, regardless if the ship’s sinking or not – Steven Taylor
Seeing reports of empty shelves on the news and then, seeing them for yourself in real life validates any concerns you may have had and can trigger that urge to grab whatever is left. You may feel a sense of panic triggered by seeing it for yourself. When things are scarce they also hold more value to us. So when it’s difficult to find toilet roll, suddenly your perceived value of toilet roll increases, making the urge to buy it more intense. Hoarding is a natural human response to perceived scarcity. But this irrational panic buying can also lead to price gouging, and we’ve already seen this with prices on eBay for things like toilet roll and hand sanitiser going through the roof! These price increases add to it being seen as a scarce product. What started as perceived scarcity becomes actual scarcity.
Fear of loss and loss aversion
If we later realise that we need toilet paper and we didn’t buy it when we had the chance, we will feel bad. A study by Kahneman and Tversky showed that losing $100 feels twice as strong as winning $100. This is why we have such an aversion to loss – it physically hurts us more.
Can you see how the red loss line is steeper than the blue gain line in the below diagram? This means that $100 loss is 2x more painful than a $100 gain.
Hoarding is a natural response to stress
Now is a time of uncertainty and social isolation. These factors can psychologically motivate people to buy things they don’t need, especially people who struggle to tolerate uncertainty. One of the strongest predictors of hoarding behaviour is a person’s perceived inability to tolerate distress. If it’s in a person’s general nature to avoid distress, they are more likely to buy more products than they need. This type of person will find it more difficult to believe the government when they announce supermarkets will not close or that the supply chain is strong. Or, if they do believe them, they may decide it’s best to be prepared, just in case things change. In the post-brexit era, trust in the government for many people is low, and when public trust in the government to handle a crisis is low, panic buying is more likely to occur.
People want to feel more in control and less anxious
This whole situation is changing rapidly. Every day there is a new announcement from the government and the speed at which our lives are changing is a shock to the system. People are feeling out of control. Panic buying is fuelled by anxiety, and a willingness to go to lengths to alleviate those fears: like queueing for hours or and buying way more toilet rolls than you need!
People react to extreme situations with extreme behaviour
Compared to past pandemics, the global response to the coronavirus has been one of widespread panic. Steven Taylor is a clinical psychologist and author of The Psychology of Pandemics, he says “On the one hand, [the response is] understandable, but on the other hand it’s excessive. The coronavirus scares people because it’s new, and there’s a lot about it that’s still unknown. When people hear conflicting messages about the risk it poses and how seriously they should prepare for it, they tend to resort to the extreme. When people are told something dangerous is coming, but all you need to do is wash your hands, the action doesn’t seem proportionate to the threat. Special danger needs special precautions.”
Zero risk bias
Research on decision-making has documented a zero risk bias. People like the idea of eliminating one category of risk entirely, even if it is something as seemingly silly as running out of toilet paper. People can get complete control over that one little thing in their lives and feel like they are doing something.
People are motivated largely by self-interest and to avoid suffering (whether physical or emotional, real or perceived). We spend time evaluating possible risks and reducing them, because it means we get to live a longer life. And while it may not make much rational sense to hoard packs of loo roll, it makes us feel like we’re taking some precautions to minimise risk. And remember, different people have different risk tolerances. So whilst you might feel perfectly fine about not overbuying loo roll, another person may need to.
Understanding the psychology behind our shopping behaviour can help us to make more rational purchases during this time. If you’re feeling compelled to panic buy, it might be worth asking what it is you’re really afraid of.