Tuesday, 28 April 2020

COVID-19: The politics of economics and adjustment

The psychology of panic buying

Lies Notebaert

COVID-19 has affected virtually every aspect of the economy, including consumer behaviour. In times of crisis purchases are guided by very different considerations than in the absence of a sense of emergency. Lies Notebaert helps us understand the psychological processes that underpin phenomena like bulk-buying and hoarding, and what can be done to prevent them and associated problems.

A few weeks into the global pandemic triggered by COVID-19, we are seeing toilet paper return to supermarket shelves, and dry food items such as pasta and rice are once again in stock. What happened? Where did #toiletpapergate come from? The stockpiling behaviour that many people engaged in when COVID-19 first reached Australian shores has been referred to as ‘panic buying’, and labelled as not helpful or sensible, ridiculous, un-Australian, and disappointing. However, it is an entirely understandable response to what was happening, and can be better understood when considering the underlying psychology.

Why is it a problem?

Stockpiling can create shortages because supermarkets, pharmacies and other stores cannot restock items fast enough to keep up with the demand. We have seen shortages in food, cleaning supplies, over-the-counter medication, electronic equipment, and other essential products such as toiletries and, of course, toilet paper. The shortages in rural communities are worse, because stores in those areas cannot restock as quickly as in metropolitan areas.

These shortages are temporary, but disproportionately affect more vulnerable people. People with mobility issues for example may not have the luxury to try different stores to find the products they need. The stockpiling of medication such as asthma puffers renders supplies low for those who actually need them. Moreover, shortages lead to price gouging, where products are sold at a price much higher than is considered reasonable or fair. This has a greater impact on people with a low disposable income and tight budgetary constraints.

The psychology

For certain items, making sure you have enough stock is entirely functional. It is generally a good idea for people dependent on prescription medication to have a few weeks’ supply at home. Many people are resorting to baking to keep themselves or their children entertained, and all that baking requires large loads of flour. These things make sense. Having 300 rolls of toilet paper piled up against the wall however, is less functional.

So why do people do it? A global health threat like COVID-19 presents a risk , and when faced with risks, people engage in behaviour to avoid that risk. COVID-19 spread rapidly throughout the world leaving many casualties. It is only logical that this pandemic is seen as a serious risk, and serious risks require drastic risk prevention actions. Simple actions like hand washing and keeping some distance seem disproportionally small actions to take in the face of a global, deadly pandemic. COVID-19 is unlike anything we’ve seen before, and so is this stockpiling behaviour. Big risks require big actions.

Another important psychological factor influencing people’s behaviour in this type of situation is uncertainty .  If there is uncertainty about a risk that we face, this uncertainty is interpreted as weakening the argument being made, and promotes self-interested behaviour. In the case of COVID-19, there was initially a lot of uncertainty about how badly Australia would be affected, and what restrictions would be put in place and when. This inescapable uncertainty undermines messages from the government and health professionals designed to reassure the public. After all, how can they be sure that we don’t need to stockpile, if there is this much uncertainty? Better safe than sorry.

In addition to uncertainty, people also dislike sensing a lack of control . In fact, unpredictability and uncontrollability are two factors that humans and other animals alike find very upsetting. Faced with no control over how COVID-19 will affect work, schools, social gatherings, travel, and important events such as weddings and funerals, it is natural for people to engage in behaviour that provides them with some feeling of control. Even if it is simply making sure that they will not run out of everyday essential supplies. Stockpiling may seem (unconsciously) to some like the only thing they can do.

Once stockpiling began, it triggered other psychological processes that made people jump on the stockpiling bandwagon. We are highly social creatures, and our herd mentality makes us inclined to follow along with what the group does. Similarly, we have a strong tendency to compare ourselves to others, and we use these social comparisons to guide our own actions. Thus, when we see empty shelves and hear friends or family talking about their stockpile, we will be inclined to start doing the same.

Of course, not everyone was stockpiling. There are large individual differences in how strongly people will be affected by these and other psychological factors. For example, research has shown that greater intolerance of uncertainty and more distress intolerance are predictors of hoarding behaviour. Moreover, a lot of these psychological processes are fuelled by anxiety , therefore people who are more vulnerable to experiencing anxiety are more likely to start stockpiling.

What can we do about it?
As many of the psychological processes that contribute to stockpiling behaviour are amplified by anxiety, one clear avenue to reduce or prevent this type of behaviour is to address the anxiety. This can consist of ensuring mental health services are readily accessible and affordable, and encouraging people to seek help if they are feeling anxious. At the same time, it can also be helpful to reassure people that feeling anxious in the midst of a global pandemic is entirely normal. It is a natural response to a genuinely anxiety-provoking situation. Acknowledging this anxiety, and providing practical tips on how to deal with it, such as getting enough sleep and exercise, and making shopping lists before going to the supermarket, can help people feel less anxious about their anxiety. This would already be a major win.

Governments can also address the uncertainty and sense of lack of control through clear reassuring communications. Although uncertainty is inevitable, it helps to provide clear and simple certainties where possible (e.g. ‘supermarkets and pharmacies will never be closed’). They should issue tips on how people can practise some control over the situation, such as advising early on ways to learn to stop touching your face. Moreover, having a trusted source of information such as a researcher or health professional convey information to the public can help reduce the negative impact of uncertainty, especially among those in whom trust in the government is low. In New Zealand for example, the face of the battle against COVID-19 is Dr Ashley Bloomfield, a medical doctor whose calm and effective communication style appears to have provided much reassurance to the nation.

And so, ‘panic buying’ is not irrational behaviour. It is triggered by normal psychological responses to an extreme situation. However, by understanding these psychological processes, we can ensure to communicate in ways that reduce stockpiling behaviour and its negative consequences.

Dr Lies Notebaert is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychological Science, and Co-Director of the Centre for Advancement of Research on Emotion (CARE). She teaches a unit on how psychology can contribute to addressing complex social issues.


UWA Public Policy Institute