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  • Writer's pictureDr. Steven Taylor

Panic Buying and COVID-19

Is panic-buying in a pandemic rational or irrational, psychologically speaking?

Anything that creates a sense of urgency or scarcity can lead to a surge of people into supermarkets and grocery stores. This can be driven by rational purchasing decisions or, in some cases, it can be panic buying.

Panic buying is characterized by purchasing that is driven by excessive anxiety and an unrealistic sense of urgency, arising from beliefs about impending scarcity. Panic buyers may go to great lengths to procure items and may purchase more than they really need. When purchasing is driven by high anxiety it can lead to poor decisions, such as over-purchasing or agreeing to pay more than is reasonable.

What causes panic buying?

Panic-buying—that is, the excessive, anxiety-driven, urgent purchasing of items—is caused by the perceived threat of scarcity. A snowball effect can occur. It starts when people are encouraged (e.g., by health authorities) to stock up on food and medicines. This causes shoppers flock to stores. Some people will buy far more than they realistically need. This leads to a depletion of stock in stores. Inevitably, someone posts dramatic photographs of panic buying. These may be images of empty shelves, or images of overstuffed shopping carts. Such images go viral on the Internet. This amplifies the sense of scarcity and perceived urgency, which leads to further panic buying.

Other snowball effects also increase the sense of scarcity and urgency. This includes price gouging by unscrupulous retailers, which has happened during previous pandemics. Perceived scarcity and urgency can also lead to theft or looting. Fortunately, theft and looting are rare, but they do happen. In fact, there have been recent reports of people stealing, for example, toilet paper in places in which it is perceived to be in short supply.

Panic buying can have a self-fulfilling effect. An initial false sense of scarcity and urgency can lead to over-buying, which then creates real scarcity, which further fuels anxiety and perpetuates panic buying.

Fear can be contagious, which can worsen panic-buying. If you act in a frightened way, filling your shopping cart in an anxious frenzy, then that can increase fear or anxiety in other shoppers, leading people to worry about the scarcity of food and other supplies. The combination of fear, urgency, and perceived scarcity can lead to things like people fighting over hand sanitizer in the supermarket aisles.

What can people do to stay calm? (Should we be calm?)

1. Listen to the advice of health authorities such as the WHO. Practice all the precautionary measures that they recommend, such as washing your hands and covering coughs.

2. Some degree of concern or anxiety is reasonable, but try to carry on with your everyday life as best as you can. Use all of the stress management strategies that you would normally use. If you go to the gym or exercise classes, for example, continue to do so. There is no reason for healthy people in the community to be wearing facemasks.

3. Keep things in perspective. Remind yourself that the graphic images on the Internet or rumors on social media can exaggerate the perceived threat. Remember that the graphic images of empty shelves are going viral simply because they are dramatic. No-one is posting images of full shelves and calm shoppers because those images aren’t dramatic or newsworthy.

4. Fear is contagious. If you act frightened or engage in panic buying, then you’ll cause other people to feel anxious. You have a responsibility to your loved ones, friends, and the rest of the community to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak in a sensible, reasoned manner. Try to “lead by example”.

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