Fear, animal instinct and social pressure – new research sheds light on the moments of societal madness that have seen Covid-related shopping hysteria around the world 

Remember the crazy crowds and never-ending queues at the supermarket during the first days of Level 4? You might have been on either side of the trench: laughing profoundly at pictures of impatient people waiting in line at the Countdown counter, or being the laughing stock of the viewers at home. Maybe you found yourself buying a secret stash of toilet paper or staring at that last pack of high-grade flour on the shelf.

A recent study conducted by the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore (NTU) has identified several psychological and social driving factors behind panic buying behaviour during the Covid-19 pandemic in Singapore. Among the results, the study found that respondents who experienced certain factors were more likely to be driven into panic buying.

Respondents reported a multitude of different motivations – the most common ones were fear, social pressure and perceived scarcity. The wartime-like limits on supplies were a result, as well as a cause. Official pleas for patience and calm were avoided entirely. Your reptilian cortex, the part of the brain that preserves your animal instincts, was already telling you to get in your car and hoard goods for apocalypse time.

The most powerful factor experienced by panic buyers was fear. Respondents experiencing fear were 14 percent more likely to engage in the panic frenzy. Next was social pressure, which the study defines as a need to resort to panic buying to ‘fit in’ with their social circles, as well as a reaction to messages on social media and the news that depict hoarding behaviour. This embellished form of FOMO (fear of missing out) gave an extra oomph (8.9 percent) to panic buyers grabbing chicken from the deli like there was no tomorrow.

Other individuals were affected by an illusion: the notion that food and household supplies were running out. People affected by perceived scarcity were 7.5 percent more likely to participate in panic buying. It doesn’t matter how many times officials and supermarkets reassure the public, people will still panic and try to win that last loaf of sliced bread.

Researchers show that shoppers weren’t simply buying their normal weekly or daily supplies also because of perceived severity (5.3 percent), the adverse effect that Covid-19 poses on an individual’s well-being; perceived susceptibility (4.1 percent), which is an individual’s perception of the likelihood of contracting the virus; and feeling a lack of control (2.4 percent) with regards to the pandemic.

The findings provide us with a scientifically researched cause for a rare social phenomenon. Scenes of wild herds of panic buyers during the pandemic have taken place globally; consumers stockpiling goods like hand sanitiser, canned foods, and toilet paper pushed supply chains and market economies to their limits.

The researchers from NTU’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) said that panic buying is causing havoc in societies around the world and can lead to system-wide failures.

“At the height of the pandemic, we saw suppliers overwhelmed by demand, raw material shortages drove prices up, and there was a market failure where high demand met limited supply,” leader of the study Yuen Kum Fai explained.

“We have seen measures to address the detrimental impact of panic buying, such as stores rationing essential items and modifying their opening hours. But our study tackles the root problem of the situation – the psychological and social components of panic buying.

“The results are not only useful for the big players in supply chains, but also policymakers and the public.”

Antoinette Laird, Head of Corporate Affairs at Foodstuffs NZ, said: “The pressure on our supply chain tends to come when customers buy more than they need, resulting in empty shelves – and with physical distancing measures in place, it does make it harder to restock – so some stores reduced their opening hours so teams could fill up the shelves more efficiently and customers had more space to select products on the shelf.”

In New Zealand, during the first lockdown in March last year, supermarket chains Countdown and Foodstuffs saw sales in basics, coffee and frozen goods skyrocketing. On August 18 this year – the first day of Level 4 – saw dairy products, chicken, sliced bread, avocado and bananas amongst the top 20 products sold at New World and Pak’nSave in the North Island. Although the increase in demand brought an increase in spending, shelf-stockers had a tough time meeting consumers’ wild wishes and store managers decided to ration purchasable items.

“From time to time, stores limited some popular products, so all customers could get a fair chance of getting what they needed when they visited the store. This varied from store to store and tended to be pantry staples like, sugar, flour and bread. Again, the need to place limits on certain products was much less pronounced and frequent during this latest lockdown,” said Foodstuffs’ Laird.

CEE’s Associate Professor Wong Yiik Diew, who co-led the study, was pleased by the outcome, highlighting the positive societal effects it can trigger.

“Understanding attitudes in relation to panic buying during a pandemic is important to ensuring food security”, said Wong.

“Knowing the reasons behind panic buying would allow policymakers and the public to address the problem. Global supply chains can be fragile, and a disruption caused by panic buying could have a domino effect, impacting the lives of many people.”

Not everyone participated equally in the shopping hysteria. Household income had a significant effect on panic buying; those with more disposable income stockpiled more goods. Lower income households were more budget-restricted and had a lower purchasing power. 

The researchers gave a reason to understand why it is so difficult to curtail these moments of societal madness, not only to the scientific community, but to the curious public too. Continuous news reports on supply chain disruptions, Instagram stories complaining about the scarcity of goods and tweets of the empty shelves might not have helped the cause. They all had a negative influence on consumer’s expectations about product shortages.

The American sociologist Robert K. Merton called the cause-effect relation defining these events a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Public definitions of a situation (prophecies or predictions) become an integral part of the situation and thus affect the subsequent development”, he wrote in 1948. This is to say that the social media and news narrative, in our case, directly affected the problem.

The researchers said their study showed that controlling the impact of social influence to curtail panic buying is difficult. But the question remains: why can’t individuals control themselves?

Federico Magrin is an Italian-born journalist, essayist and philosopher based in New Plymouth, where he works as a reporter for Stuff.

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