A hand delivering petrol at a petrol pump

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

With queues for petrol still in place across the country, Stylist asks: where does the impulse to panic buy actually come from? 

Whether or not you drive a car, you’ll no doubt be aware of the so-called “fuel crisis” unfolding across the UK at the moment.

While, as the government has maintained, there is technically not a ‘fuel shortage,’ a lack of HGV drivers has led to a disruption in the supply chain, meaning some petrol stations have been forced to close due to a lack of stock.

And while this might not sound like too much of a cause for concern, the closure of some petrol stations led many drivers to ‘panic buy’ and stockpile fuel over the weekend, which caused the problem to become more widespread.

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In short, a solid proportion of the issues we’re facing right now are being exacerbated by the fact that so many people are panic buying – just as we saw at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when supermarket shelves were emptied of toilet paper and other essential items.

So, why do we feel the need to panic buy – especially when we know it’s probably going to make the situation worse?

According to Dr Audrey Tang, a psychologist, mental health and wellness expert and author of the new book The Leader’s Guide To Resilience, the biggest reason why humans feel the need to panic buy is because it’s a response to fear. 

“The brain – which is responsible for our survival – doesn’t like being placed ‘under threat’,” Dr Tang explains.

“Such, when it feels threatened (and that psychological fear response is the same whether or not that threat is physically present e.g., a lion chasing us or the fear of missing out), we are motivated to reduce the unpleasantness of that sensation. Fear makes us selfish – we’re often too focused on removing the fear to consider the consequences of our actions.”

In this way, the fear that we might ‘miss out’ on petrol or end up not having enough places us in a state where we’re psychologically motivated to reduce the unpleasantness of that feeling by, you guessed it, buying fuel.  

A petrol station with a sign saying there's nothing left
When we fear that we'll 'miss out' on petrol, our brain gets placed 'under threat'.

On top of this, Dr Tang adds, buying fuel (even when we don’t necessarily ‘need’ it) is a way to find a sense of control in an unpredictable environment, and give our brains a dopamine hit (the chemical associated with our brain’s ‘reward center’). We also feel driven to do it simply because we see others behaving in the same way – aka the theory of social proof.

“Humans are communal – we have always lived in a society of some description, and we learn from other people,” she says.

“You only need to consider your own reaction when you hear a fire alarm. Rationally, we know that we’re supposed to collect our belongings and head calmly to the nearest exit, but if a fire alarm goes off in a public space, we usually look around and see what everyone else is doing first. If we see queues, we are often drawn to follow suit.” 

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Of course, not everyone who’s buying petrol right now is doing so unnecessarily – in fact, many people are now having to queue because their cars are running on empty – and that makes the situation even more complicated, Dr Tang adds.

“The wider problem comes when people have been able to rationalise their fear – to think, ‘I don’t need petrol just yet, I can wait’ – but the panic buyers have now bought out the stock leaving nothing left,” she says. 

“Now, someone who needs petrol, and whose personal experience of driving around forecourts has taught them there is no petrol, will genuinely be feeling anxious.” 

How to stop yourself from panic buying 

A queue of cars outside a petrol station
The first step towards stopping yourself from panic buying is interrogating your motives.

It’s completely understandable to feel a little worried about the current fuel situation – especially if you need your car to get to work or carry out essential tasks – but it’s also important to keep your anxiety levels under control and think about your behaviour.

Do you really need fuel? Or are you just buying some ‘just in case’? Would you usually go to the petrol station at this time of the week? Or are you just joining the queue because it looks like your petrol station has had a restock? There’s a difference – and taking the time to interrogate the reason behind your behaviour will help you to understand when you’re being driven by anxiety.  

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As consumer psychologist Kate Nightingale previously told Stylist: “Knowledge helps. 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.”

While it may feel futile to change your behaviour in the face of such widespread panic, every person who stops and thinks about what they’re doing will make a difference to the situation as a whole. 

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This article was originally published in February 2020 and has since been updated throughout.

Images: Getty


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