A human behavior expert explains 4 psychological reasons why people are panic buying items in bulk during the coronavirus pandemic

  • Over the past couple of weeks, people visiting grocery stores have been met by an apocalyptic sight — empty shelves.
  • Essentials like toilet paper, pasta, and vegetables have been selling out in supermarkets everywhere.
  • This panic buying in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus is due to the brain's survival mode overriding any rational decision making, according to human behavior expert Dr. Ali Fenwick.
  • He said there are four main reasons for bulk-buying: survival mode, the scarcity effect, herd behavior, and seeking a sense of control.
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A trip to the supermarket ends the same way for many people around the world right now — trying to pick up anything you can among rows and rows of empty shelves.

While shops have not closed in most places, people have been panic buying items in bulk so they are prepared if their country does go into complete lockdown. Grocery chains and governments have advised against this bulk-buying, but this hasn't stopped people rushing to queue up and buy tons of things like toilet paper and diapers to store in their homes.

Panic buying behavior occurs when the brain's survival mode overrides any rational decision making, according to Dr. Ali Fenwick, human behavior expert at Nyenrode Business University.

He said there are four main reasons why people feel the need to stock up in this way.

1. Survival mode

An uncertain or threatening situation means the more primitive part of the brain can take over, and it's main objective is to keep you alive. This suppresses or distorts rational thinking, so even though governments are promising there will be no disruption to food supply, many don't listen.

Most people have never lived through something like this current health crisis, so they would rather buy more food than they usually would than risk going hungry.

2. The scarcity effect

Scarcity of products leads people to perceive them as more valuable, meaning they are more willing to pay a premium price. It can even make us buy things we don't even want because we think they are suddenly worth more.

This can explain why people are scrambling for toilet paper and stealing it out of other people's baskets even though they have plenty at home.

3. Herd behaviour

Fenwick explained that the fact other people are filling their houses with things they don't need can bring about the urge for you to do the same.

Everything feels quite uncertain right now, with social isolation and countries closing their borders, which can lead us to follow what other people are doing, even if it's not right at all.

4. Sense of control

In uncertain times, it's nice to feel like you have control over something. When looking at the apocalyptic sight of an emply aisle, buying up anything you can helps provide that control, because you know — if the worst comes to the worst — you can feed your family.

"In summary, bulk buying is caused by various psychological and environmental cues which throw rational thinking out of the window," said Fenwick. "When in survival mode, we let mainly our emotions drive decisions and are more susceptible to social influences. So, we will rush out and buy more because we believe others are doing the same."

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