As the Coronavirus has become more of an ever-present topic of discussion in the mainstream media, it’s brought with it more than just the threat of contracting the virus, itself. The last couple of weeks have seen people all over the globe resorting to stockpiling – or panic buying – specific items deemed to be essentials – namely toilet roll and hand sanitiser. It’s seen shelves empty at a rapid rate, and confrontational scenes take place between members of the public over basic household items. But how and why does this happen?
There is no absolute answer as to why stockpiling becomes so prevalent in times of crisis. Each situation presents its own unique set of circumstances. And it can often be the case that there are contradictions at play that make analysing this social behaviour far from an exact science, which has been the case with the panic buying that has sprung from the Coronavirus outbreak.
Psychologists from around the globe have weighed in with their interpretation of why people are resorting to ‘panic buying’. One of the core observations made by Assistant Professor of Cambridge University Sander Van Der Linden is the effect of what he calls the “fear contagion,” of which there are several factors at play. He goes on to say that in the US specifically, people are receiving mixed messages from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and the Trump administration. This sense of uncertainty is driving the push towards stockpiling.
Sander continues by unpacking both the value and the pitfalls of “social knowledge”, and how we can be easily influenced by our peers. We’re programmed by nature to look to those around us for guidance. “From an evolutionary perspective when we don’t know how to react to something, we look to others guidance”. But through being so reliant on this mode of thinking as our default position, we run the risk of allowing our independent thought-processes to be “hijacked”.
This sentiment is expanded upon by Peter Noel Murray, an active member of the American Psychological Association. He posits that the two main factors at play are cognitive and emotional responses. He says, “in case the cognitive factor is cognitive bias, (which means) we tend to overemphasise thing that are recent and very vivid”. In other words, we tend to catastrophise whatever the event or situation it is we’re looking at.
Subsequently, this then forces us into making emotional decisions. “On the emotional side, the answer is self-affirmation”. From this, we look to bring a sense of measure and control back to our lives. By going out and stockpiling supplies, it allows us to feel that despite everything which is going on around us, we at least have a firm hand on our security. As long as we take the necessary precautions, we’ll be fine. This ultimately speaks to our materialistic view of the world. There is comfort in our possessions.
That is also the view of Paul Marsden, a consumer psychologist at the University of the Arts of London. He echoes this sentiment saying, “it’s about ‘taking back control in a world where you feel out of control”. This, he adds, feed into our three fundamental psychological needs, which he describes as being, autonomy, relatedness and competence. The first of which relates to control, the second as an awareness of the collective and the third as being a “smart shopper”.
But that aside, there are some very basic rationales for the current stockpiling mentality. It’s more than simply a hoarding mindset. There is consideration behind these mass purchases, even if in most cases they appear to be unwarranted. In most cases, it’s less about greed and more about being able to provide for those who’re closest to you in times of uncertainty. It can be just as much a pro-active and altruistic behaviour to prevent you from not being able to provide for your family.
That’s not to say we should all rush out and empty the shelves of hand sanitiser and toilet paper. But when you look at the behaviour from the point of view of collectivism – even if you’re not part of that particular collective – it does help us rationalise what is otherwise quite unusual behaviour.