I’ve been hearing a lot of people recently commenting how there seems to be a lack of items like hand wash, sanitiser and even toilet roll in the supermarkets. Hand sanitiser is currently being administered somewhat like tobacco; it’s being stored behind counters and you have to ask for it and even then you can only purchase a maximum of two at a time. The current lack of hygiene products is very much in response to the current coronavirus situation. But this got me thinking about the psychology behind stockpiling behaviours and why certain individuals do this.
Stockpiling, also referred to as panic buying is defined in the Cambridge English dictionary as ‘a situation in which many people suddenly buy as much food, fuel, etc. as they can because they are worried about something bad that may happen’. As the name suggests, this type of buying is fuelled mainly through anxiety. Research suggests that there are three factors that lead to an increase in anxiety in these situations: scarcity, maintaining a sense of control, and social proof.
Firstly, us humans psychologically respond to scarcity, we don’t like to feel like we have missed out on something important. If something appears rare, we are more likely to chase it (especially if it’s something we wanted in the first place). A good example of this is the Black Friday sales, which we see footage of on the news every year. We see how some people are prepared to queue for hours and fight with each other to get a cheap TV set, all emotionally fuelled of course.
During the coronavirus outbreak, social media has used the hashtags #toiletpapercrisis and #toiletpapergate to display pictures of empty supermarket shelves, making toilet paper appear scarce and something that is running out. After seeing such images and information online, an individual can be motivated to stock up on toilet paper by ‘anticipatory regret’, we are protecting ourselves from a feeling of regret later down the line. I’m sure that we’ve all experienced that feeling of remorse and regret of missing out on something and would understand others wanting to avoid these feelings.
Maintaining a sense of control
Secondly, some panic buying can be an effort to try and keep a sense of control in uncertain situations. A loss of control is not the same as feeling out of control; It addresses the everyday experience of being unable to take action to help produce a desired outcome in a given environment, which in this case might be to be able to personally cope if the coronavirus becomes a big issue for the country.
None of us are entirely sure of what is happening with the coronavirus at the moment, or what will happen in the near future. Stockpiling helps individuals to feel in control; it’s an aspect of their lives that they can actively control. In this case, panic buying toilet paper can help to ease the anxieties that an individual is feeling.
As human beings we are always subconsciously keeping an eye on what those around us are doing (even if you think otherwise!). Social proof is a phrase made popular by psychologist Robert Cialdini. In times where we are unsure of how to behave we will look to see how others are behaving, so social proof could be considered as a type of conformity. We believe at the time that others around us possess more information about the situation than us and that they have made their choices based upon this information they possess (spoiler: they usually don’t know much more than you do). Here’s a quick experiment for you: stand in the middle of town just looking up at nothing in particular. Keep an eye on the people around you and you might realise some of them looking up as well, us humans hate to think we are missing out on something!
I can think of a specific time in my life where I was majorly influenced by social proof. So it’s summer of 2017, I’m with a friend at a summer fair and we fancy a bite to eat. We head over to the food carts and there’s two options: a hamburger bar or a burrito stand. There were a couple of people waiting for hamburgers but the queue to the burritos was a lot longer. We went for burritos figuring that if the queue was longer, it must mean they are the best choice. In this case our decision to follow the herd paid off and after waiting 45 minutes in a queue I enjoyed eating the best burrito that I have ever had in my life. But the results of social proof aren’t always so tasty. In this case, an individual seeing another person bulk buying toilet roll may increase their chances of doing the same thing as they may fear that they are missing something due to their lack of knowledge about the current situation.
I find the psychology behind human behaviour like this all so interesting. On a slight side note, I also just found out that stockpiling is referred to as ‘Hamsterkauf’ in Germany. This great word translates to ‘hamster buying’ and literally refers to the way hamsters stuff their cheeks with food:
So have you been feeling more inclined to buy more of certain items because of the coronavirus? Or do the factors above have little effect on your behaviours? Let me know below.