Ideas: Why are we panic buying?

By now, all of us have witnessed the empty shelves at supermarkets and have come to terms with the fact that bread, eggs and milk might not be available in the shops. Here, Aarron Toal, a PhD candidate at Durham University Business School, looks at the psychology behind panic buying and tells us why we do it

PANIC in the aisles: Why we panic buy

The impact of COVID-19 is much more far-reaching than just the immense pressures being faced by world governments or healthcare services. Societies are shutting down, fundamental liberties are being restricted, and behaviours of individuals are changing, with incredible scenes of panic observed in the aisles of supermarkets, as we face the reality of living in a world with restriction.

What started as photos of empty shelves on social media soon spread just as quickly as the virus itself, infecting the minds of consumers, resulting in symptoms of frenzied hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitiser. In less than a month, the phenomena of panic buying toilet paper was global, yet few shoppers could tell us why they were stocking up.

To understand the phenomena of panic buying, the nature of panic as a fundamental human emotion needs to be considered first.

Panic as an emotion

Consider the emotions we feel every day. Some are primed to move us to ensure survival such as ANGER, FEAR or SEEKING. Being a more socially orientated race, humans experience other emotions as a consequence, including JOY, PLAY and PANIC.

PANIC is triggered by social disenfranchisement that is the nature of being deprived or excluded from particular freedoms within a society. The SEEKING system, being our search for resources to ensure our survival, can no longer function and the instinct of PANIC kicks in to warn us that our very chances of survival are at risk. The subsequent observed behaviour results in a frenzied search for resources as we ignore all rational advice from authority and forgo logical thought. But why toilet paper?

Panic and feeling out of control

If the opportunity to seek decreases, then so does the perception of being in control as factors within our external environment make it difficult to search for resources or fulfil our needs and wants. People enter a panicked state, making them irrational in a pursuit to regain control.  Even though toilet paper is not an essential product to be used in the combat of Covid-19, consumers who are compelled to panic buy may feel that they are gaining some control over their environment.

Panic and mortality

If the feeling of being out of control increases, not to mention the prospect of succumbing to a deadly virus, then one starts to panic about the impact this has on their individual survival. Nevermore so have individuals experienced an intensified awareness of their own mortality or sense of existentiality. This frame of mind has great influence over a consumer’s behaviour, including engaging in irrational purchasing decisions in our search for comfort.

Panic and group behaviour

Humans are social creatures, conforming or reacting positively to our in-group. We look to our in-group for stability, reassurance and a sense of belonging, especially when panicked. This results in herd behaviour, we copy others when we ourselves don’t know how to react. Therefore, if people within our in-group begin a frenzied shopping spree of particular items, we feel compelled to follow the herd, even if we do not fully understand why we need to purchase them.

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