During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been bombarded with images of empty supermarket shelves, human cattle stockpiling toilet roll like we’re all going to poop ourselves to death, and men on horseback mocking queuing motorists at garage forecourts. But what does the science say about panic buying?
The research on the causes of panic buying is scarce and scattered. A 2020 review The Psychological Effects of Panic Buying published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggests that panic buying is influenced by individuals’ perception of the threat of the health crisis and scarcity of products. This includes fear of the unknown, which is caused by negative emotions and uncertainty; coping behaviour, which views panic buying as a venue to relieve anxiety and regain control over the crisis; and social psychological factors, which account for the influence of the social network of an individual.
If you were to only believe social media during the recent UK fuel shortages, you might deduce that panic-driven greed and general shithousery is to blame, with people savagely beating each other over the head with jerry cans for the last pump of petrol at a Shell garage at 11 pm on a Tuesday night. But can we really blame human irrationality for the recent fuel shortages?
Can we really blame human irrationality for the recent fuel shortages?
In his bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahnemann states that our behaviour is determined by 2 systems in your mind – one conscious and the other automatic. To summarise Kahnemann’s findings, system 1 can be described as automatic and impulsive. This is the ancient, ‘reptilian' part of the brain linked to the amygdala and is crucial to our survival, fight or flight. System 2 is very conscious, aware and considerate. It helps you exert self-control and deliberately focus your attention, a recent addition only a few thousand years old. It is reductive to say that ‘panic’ is solely fuelling shortages when its clear rational thought systems in the brain are also at play.
The narrative portrayed by political messaging has been shifting blame from government failures to handle the HGV driver shortage and Brexit, to the individuals. Transport secretary, Grant Shapps, who described the crisis as a “manufactured situation”, told Sky News: “If everyone carries on buying it when they don’t need it then you will continue to have queues … We appeal to people to be sensible.” Yet the UK is currently short of 100,000 HGV drivers, according to the Road Haulage Association.
Shapps’ comments were challenged in a recent Guardian podcast with Prof Clifford Stott, a social psychologist at Keele University and member of Sage’s advisory subcommittee on public behaviour. He has spent his career examining the behaviour of crowds, both in-person and online. He argues that the tendency to describe a large group’s urgent response to difficult circumstances as a “panic” misrepresents the reality – and says that, in fact, people tend to work together and think rationally about how best to combat the situation.
In the fuel crisis, Stott says, there is little evidence that stockpiling is happening on any significant scale – instead, the system has simply failed to handle the demands placed on it by people who unavoidably need petrol to go about their lives. And when that behaviour is described as panic, blame is easily passed on from those responsible for our shared infrastructure to those who rely on it.
One lesson we can draw from this pandemic is that human behaviour and habits can change when scientific advice is followed by both government and the general public. This could give us some hope in tackling the climate crisis, the focus of next week’s COP26 conference in Glasgow. Maybe those of us who can cycle should stockpile granola bars for fuel rather than petrol.