Panic Buying, What is the Psychology Behind Hoarding?

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As the new year broke the coronavirus outbreak swept across Asia. It quickly branched out to the rest of the world and took its place on headlines, where it remains today. It has become apparent this startling pandemic took both experts and laymen by surprise. Few nations were prepared to handle the havoc coronavirus would wreck on their healthcare systems, and fewer still were able to react to the publics’ satisfaction. This break in trust and failure of communication is ultimately where the larger problem lay when examining the behavior many adopted as the outbreak progressed.

Consumer habits is a widely studied field in economics, and the panic buying and hoarding observed here presents a great case study into the psychology that drives it. Consumers make decisions based on their past experiences and the expectations they form based on the information available to them. Natural hazards are a good parallel here, for example hurricanes can have a disastrous impact on the communities they affect. Financial strain, healthcare exhaustion, goods shortages, and many more complications could be expected in these scenarios.

How Exceptions Affect Behavior

The key here is that these issues are anticipated by both officials and the public. Generally speaking, people preparing for a hurricane have often experienced or witnessed a hurricane before. The same can be said for many other hazards, such a tsunamis, earthquakes, tornados, etc. People living in locations prone to these phenomena can access standard information with tried and true advice. 

Officials are sure in their decisions, there is not often a great deal of confusion or signs of hesitation. The public know that they can depend on the support of their authorities and the procedures set in place to protect them.

The panic buying seen during the coronavirus outbreak is driven by one primary, human concern; insecurity. In recent memory, there have been a few cases of outbreaks similar to the coronavirus, such as SARS, but none have exerted the extreme, global influence seen with coronavirus.

Most of the general public had not experienced such an outbreak in their lifetime and had no experiences to draw from. Many responded by behaving cavalier and dismissing warnings, however as the outbreak progressed serious effects were observed in the news. Businesses were forced to close, governments urged social distancing, and hospitals in the most affected areas were overrun within weeks.

Soon afterwards, many engaged in the aforementioned panic buying and hoarding.

The Information Available to Consumers

It is important to note here that the precautions taken by officials were of course necessary. Although the mortality rate of those affected by coronavirus is relatively low as compared to other diseases, the unique combination of its easy transmission and high likelihood of necessary medical intervention, means it exerts significate strain on healthcare providers.

Without the right healthcare support, the causalities would be bound to raise to disastrous consequences. It is well known that attempts made to combat the virus, such as social distancing, will lengthen the outbreak so that healthcare providers have the time and resources to respond accordingly. Despite the rising unemployment and potential long term financial stress, many precautions were necessary for the greater public good.

However, officials have been criticized for their indecision. Precautions could have been implemented earlier, which may have reduced the impact of the virus, and information should have been more thoroughly vetted before released to the public. This lack of leadership drove many to suspect that they had to fend for themselves, therefore inciting them to panic buy and hoard goods in case further, more serious effects came to light.

Consumers also did not have an appropriate timeline to follow, without knowing how long the outbreak would last they were compelled to stock up on important resources for the future. It was unclear what supplies, if any, would run out. In the case of natural disasters, some supplies such as basic foods and toiletries are difficult to garner during this period. Using the only past experiences that may apply to these circumstances, consumers came to the conclusion that supplies would naturally run out during this outbreak.

This led to panic buying, which inevitably led to more panic buying. Without information from a reliable source, when consumers saw stores were running out of goods, many began to panic buy themselves. Panic buying begets panic buying, soon many found themselves stocking up on important goods, thereby hoarding.

Part of the reasoning here was that many essential products, such as toilet paper or staple foods like pasta, don’t have a substitute. When these stocks are unavailable, many will have to resort to doing without them. While these fears are valid concerns, they were soon proven unfounded as officials announced that there were no shortages in essential products. Shelves were simply out of stock at the moment because of panic buying. This news came far too late, as many had taken these empty shelves as signs of serious shortages. Misinformation played a major role in the panic buying witnessed in the past weeks, but there was emotionally driven reasoning as well.

The Emotional Root of the Problem

In uncertain times, when people are insecure and following the lead of others, hoarding provides a much needed sense of security. In a very primal way, having a surplus of the supplies we need to live at home, allows us to relax as human beings. Regardless of the information available, there will always be a rise in the sales of essential items when an outbreak occurs. Although an excess of panic buying and hoarding, as seen during the coronavirus outbreak, can be curtailed with a clear and honest line of communication between the public and the officials that govern them.

In itself, panic buying can lead to many undue hardships on the people who engage in these activities. Overspending on these products can lead to financial stress, while the rush to buy available products can encourage people to leave their houses and risk infection unnecessarily.

Hoarding also means that some products are left unavailable to those who may need them, at least for a short time. Ultimately, panic buying is a symptom of a much deeper psychological need to feel secure. Only by understanding these processes can we take measures to halt them and focus on the true issues at hand.

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