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.
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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.
No, you don’t need 20 more toilet rolls.
“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.”
“When people are reminded about their mortality, they become more impulsive”
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.”