The psychology of panic buying: why do we feel the need to stockpile?

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to grow, there’s one aspect of the pandemic that continues to make headlines: the number of people panic buying. But where does this impulse to stockpile come from, and how can we resist the urge to shop? Stylist investigates.

If there’s one thing the coronavirus outbreak has shown us, it’s that a lot can change in a week. Last Wednesday, I spent my lunch break swanning around the local supermarkets on a hunt for some hand sanitiser. This Wednesday, you’d be lucky to find some of the most basic foodstuffs.

Up and down the country, people are now taking panic buying to a whole other level. While previously supermarkets were placing a two-item limit on the most popular products such as hand soap and toilet roll, now, some of the biggest shops including Sainsbury’s and Aldi are putting an item limit on every single product in their stores. Visitors to Sainsbury’s will now only be allowed to buy three of any grocery item and two of the most popular items to ensure everyone is able to get their hands on the things they need.

Despite the fact that government advice has warned people not to panic buy because of coronavirus fears, it seems many of us have decided to do the exact opposite – and it’s causing supply shortages across the country, with people taking to Twitter to lament the empty shelves at their local shop.

“Sainsburys right now. This is not okay. Why do people have to be selfish and greedy,” one person wrote.

“My local Sainsburys has upgraded from mild panic buying to apocalyptic wasteland,” wrote another.

“One of my #NHS colleagues just finished a 12 hour shift and needed some basic food supplies on her way home,” added a third. “This is what greeted her in Sainsburys in Sheffield. So utterly selfish and unnecessary, just stop the madness people!”

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. And although we know we shouldn’t be stockpiling, and that buying two items instead of one probably isn’t necessary, the panic and empty shelves around us makes it harder to resist. So where does this impulse come from?

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“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.

“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.”

Toilet rolls
Panic-buying: No, you don't need 20 more toilet rolls.

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.”

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.”

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The theory of social proof is also another reason why we’re likely to follow the behaviours of others. Basically, when we see other people being worried about something, we feel the need to be worried too – and that transforms into our need to take action when we see other people doing so.

As Nightingale explains: “Everyone is buying things out, so we feel like we should be too: that if other people are doing it, then the danger must be real.” 

How to stop yourself from panic buying

It’s completely understandable and normal to feel a little worried about coronavirus, but it’s also important to keep your anxiety levels under control. 

Panic buying doesn’t help anyone – it actually hurts some of the most vulnerable people in society. Food banks across Britain are now running out of staples including milk and cereal as a result of people panic-buying, and are urging people to think twice about stockpiling supplies. And panic buying tampons also makes them less accessible to the women who need them. It’s integral that we all try to keep calm and follow the latest government advice instead of trying to take matters into our own hands.

A woman shopping
Do you really need five bags of pasta?

Because our impulse to panic buy is fuelled by the anxiety we feel in response to the coronavirus outbreak, one of the best things we can do to stop ourselves from buying too much is staying on top of our anxiety levels and only acting on official information. Buying lots of things may help to lower your anxiety levels in the short term and help you feel more in control, but in the long term, it’s better to find healthy coping methods.

“Knowledge helps,” Nightingale says. “The more we realise the power of these subconscious influences on our decisions and actions, the less influential they become and the more we are able to stop the automatic impulse and rather think our decisions through.”

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So next time you go to pick up an extra hand soap or bag of pasta while you’re in the shop, stop for a second and consider what’s actually driving you to make that decision.

Just as we all have a responsibility to follow government advice and practise social distancing in order to stem the spread of the virus, so too do we have a responsibility to stop anxiety from spreading – and refraining from panic buying is a great place to start.

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Images: Unsplash/Getty


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