We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

PANIC in the aisles: Why we panic buy

By Aarron Toal, PhD Candidate - March 2020

The impact of Covid-19 is much more far-reaching than just the immense pressures being faced by world governments or healthcare services as they rush to try and stem the spread of Coronavirus. Societies are shutting down, fundamental liberties are being restricted, and behaviours of individuals are changing, with incredible scenes of panic observed in the aisles of supermarkets and pharmacy stores, as we begin to face the reality of living in a world with restriction.

What started as online rumours on social media soon spread just as quickly around the globe as the virus itself, infecting the minds of consumers, resulting in symptoms of frenzied hoarding of toilet paper, hand sanitisers and face masks. Incredible scenes of shoppers fighting in the aisles of Australian supermarkets over toilet paper, footage of empty shelves or queues of people lining up outside pharmacies based on rumours there’d just been a delivery of hand sanitisers dominated the media. In less than a month, the phenomena of panic buying toilet paper was global, yet few shoppers could tell us why they were stocking up.

To understand the phenomena of panic buying, the nature of panic as a fundamental human emotion needs to be considered first.

Panic as an emotion

Consider the emotions we feel every day. Of the seven identified universal emotions, some are primed to move animals (including humans) to ensure survival, such as ANGER, FEAR, SEEKING and LUST. Mammals who are more socially orientated experience other emotions as a consequence, including JOY, PLAY and PANIC. These primal emotions have their own dedicated neurocircuitry and require no learning, but instead speak to us through instinct as a result of evolution, as we gravitate towards the pleasant ones (PLAY, JOY, SEEKING and LUST) and avoid the averse ones (ANGER, FEAR and PANIC).

PANIC is triggered by social disenfranchisement that is the nature of being deprived or excluded from particular freedoms within a society. Social loss can even sometimes manifest itself into physical pain. The SEEKING system (i.e. the freedom to explore for resources and one of primed emotions that moves us) can no long function. Once this is taken away, chances of survival begin to diminish as you are prevented from SEEKING the environment for resources. In other words, if humans can no longer obtain the resources they need for survival, then the instinctual emotion of PANIC kicks in to warn us that our very chances of survival are at risk. The subsequent behaviour of these emotions (decreased SEEKING and increasing PANIC) results in a frenzied search for resources as we ignore all rational advice from authority and forgo logical thought. But why toilet paper?

Panic and feeling out of control

Scenes of empty shelves where basic commodities such as toilet roll once stood became the norm within supermarkets. What started as a rumour on social media has often resulted in violent confrontations between consumers within the aisles. This phenomena has some interesting origins.

Fundamentally, a decrease in SEEKING results in an increase of PANIC. This behaviour drives different types of observed, irrational behaviour. As SEEKING decreases, so does a perception of individual control, as factors within our external environment make it difficult to search for resources or to fulfil our needs and wants. Previous studies highlight situations where consumers who experience a perception of not being in control within their environment, meaning that they were unable to fulfil a desired outcome, often bought more practical items during shopping trips.

Even though toilet paper is not an essential product to be used in the combat of COVID-19, consumers who are compelled to panic buy may feel that they are gaining some control over their environment, reducing PANIC.

Panic and mortality

If however, the feeling of being out of control, i.e. unable to engage in SEEKING activities, increases, not to mention the impending prospect of succumbing to a deadly virus, then one starts to PANIC about the impact this has on their individual survival. Right now, humans are experiencing a heightened awareness of their own mortality, creating an intensified sense of existentiality. Mortality salience has great influence over a consumer’s behaviour, including engaging in irrational purchase decisions that fulfil no other objective than to reduce PANIC and make ourselves feel more prepared for the end, leading to increased consumption, even of the most generic or random of consumables, in our search for comfort.

Panic and group behaviour

It’s not just individual instinct or emotion that guides behaviour. Humans are social creatures, usually confirming or reacting positively to our in-group whilst rejecting the often alien out-group. We look to our in-group for stability, reassurance and a sense of belonging. This conformity reduces PANIC and creates a sense of security through the people we identify with. In times of uncertainty, the influence our in-group has on our individual behaviour increases dramatically as we look to them for guidance and leadership. What results is herd behaviour, no matter how irrational, as we begin to act collectively without any real direction. Therefore, if people within our in-group begin a frenzied shopping spree of particular items, we feel compelled to follow the herd and do the same, even if we do not fully understand why we need to purchase them.

In times of uncertainty, any factors that results in the feeling of having less control within our environment and thereby increasing the emotion of PANIC will have interesting consequences, particularly within consumer behaviour. Instinctual cues formed through specific emotions will guide our often irrational or quite frankly odd behaviour as we navigate a restricted environment and rely on our very foundational evolutionary instincts to survive.

More information