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March 13, 2020

Weekly line: The psychology behind COVID-19 panic buying

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    For those of us who grew up in the Northern hemisphere, snow stormsand the accompanying rush to buy bread and milkwere a common occurrence. While grabbing some last-minute snacks before a storm has always seemed like a reasonable idea to me, I've often wondered why people cleared grocers' stocks of two very perishable food items.

    Our analysis: The 'recurring themes' of disease outbreaks

    Now, the new coronavirus' onslaught has raised a similar question: Why are people around the world flocking to stores to purchase toilet paper in mass quantities?

    As it turns out, there are psychological explanations behind why people panic buy when faced with potential home confinement—and behind the goods they choose to stockpile. Let's take a closer look.

    The COVID-19 pandemic spurs mass buying

    As the new coronavirus continues to spread throughout the world and cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, surge in the United States, Americans and others have rushed to stores on panic buying sprees. Shoppers are stocking up on soap, hand sanitizers, and other disinfectants they believe can protect themselves from the virus.

    As Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology and president of decision research at the University of Oregon, told NBC News' Vivian Manning-Schaffel: people's desire to stock up on hand sanitizer makes sense. "Washing our hands and using sanitizer is one of the few things that we're being told that we can do to give us a sense of control over our risk, so it's not surprising then that people are going big time to do this."

    Shoppers also are stocking up on nonperishable food items and bottled water. While those items won't necessarily help protect against COVID-19, experts say there are psychological reasons why people panic buy in the face of disasters. For one, having some extra food on hand is likely to be helpful in the event of a quarantine.

    But psychologists also have another explanation. Paul Marsden, a consumer psychologist at the University of the Arts London, told CNBC's Chloe Taylor that panic buying is akin to retail therapy. "It's about 'taking back control' in a world where you feel out of control," Marsden said.

    Why toilet paper, in particular, is flying off store shelves

    But why toilet paper? A simple scroll through my social media pages shows many are asking the same question: COVID-19 doesn't cause gastrointestinal symptoms, so why the need for excess amounts of toilet paper?

    Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a lecturer in consumer and business psychology at University College London, told CNBC's Taylor that toilet paper is an "icon" of widespread panic. "When you enter a supermarket, you're looking for value and high volumes," and people are drawn to toilet paper's large packaging, Tsivrikos said.

    And that's likely not the only reason toilet paper is flying off the shelves.

    Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia who specializes in the psychology of pandemics, told NBC News' Manning-Schaffel that panic buying occurs "when people worry about the scarcity of supplies."

    Bloomberg's Ari Altstedter and Jinshan Hong report that, when the new coronavirus first emerged and began spreading throughout mainland China, "rumours started that Hong Kong's supply of toilet paper would be affected" because "the city imports most of its goods" from China. That triggered some people in Hong Kong to begin stockpiling the product.

    From there, so-called "fear contagion" likely played a role, Sander van der Linden, an assistant professor of social psychology at Cambridge University, told Taylor. "When people are stressed their reason is hampered, so they look at what other people are doing. If others are stockpiling it leads you to engage in the same behavior," he explained.

    And sure enough, Altstedter and Hong write, "It wasn't long after coronavirus cases started appearing in Singapore that toilet paper started disappearing. In Australia, a growing number of people have racked up charges related to toilet paper induced fighting, as hashtags #toiletpapergate and #toiletpapercrisis have trended."

    The practice has gotten so pervasive that Andy Yap, a professor of organizational behavior at the Singapore campus of INSEAD business school, told Altstedter and Hong, "Even people who were queuing up in the supermarket line to buy toilet paper … have no idea why they are buying toilet paper. … They just see other people doing it and start doing it themselves because they are afraid they might lose out."

    Experts say panic buying can have negative repercussions, so how do we make it stop?

    Although panic buying might calm feelings of fear and urgency in the buyer, experts say the practice can have negative repercussions.

    For example, Steven Taylor told Manning-Schaffel that panic buying can create shortages of goods that weren't at risk of scarcity. "The combination of fear, urgency, and perceived scarcity can lead to things like people fighting over hand sanitizer in the supermarket aisles," which "creates a sense of urgency and leads people to over-buy." That, in turn, "can create real shortages because people buy more than they need," he said. "So, the fear of scarcity can create real scarcities."

    Yap told Altstedter and Hong that the key to quelling panic buying is for officials to assure the public that they have outbreaks under control—and, in this case, that they won't run out of toilet paper.

    However, many countries have been unable to achieve that goal, and doing so might be particularly difficult in the United States, where the media and public have critiqued the U.S. government's response to the pandemic.

    Further, Frank Farley, a professor at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association, told CNN's Scottie Andrew that advisements from CDC and other agencies seeking to raise awareness about vulnerable populations, such as seniors and those with underlying health conditions, "is engendering a sort of survivalist psychology." Farley explained that this line of thinking prompts people to prepare for sheltering in their homes and "'stock up' on essentials, and that certainly includes toilet paper." He added, "After all, if we run out of [toilet paper], what do we replace it with?"

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