Understanding and managing pandemic-related panic buying Academic Article uri icon

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abstract

  • Pandemics are associated with panic buying (PB) of groceries and other supplies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, community leaders expressed frustration and bewilderment about PB. Psychological explanatory concepts, including those from social learning theory and the concept of the behavioral immune system, along with recent research, suggests the following account of pandemic-related PB. PB arises when people are told to go into self-isolation as part of pandemic containment interventions. Empirically, episodes of PB typically last 7-10 days and are likely initiated by highly fearful people. PB by an anxious minority of shoppers leads to fear contagion among other shoppers, amplified by widespread dissemination, via social media, of images and videos of PB and empty shelves in stores. Thus, a snow-balling effect arises where fear of scarcity creates real but short-term scarcity. People who are highly frightened of infection tend to have heightened disgust proneness. Toilet paper is a means of escaping disgust stimuli, and for this and other reasons, toilet paper became a target of PB for people frightened of contracting COVID-19. Exploitative or selfish over-purchasing also occurred, motivated by "dark" (e.g., psychopathic) personality traits. "Don't panic!" messages from community leaders were ineffective or counter-productive. Alternative forms of messaging are discussed.

publication date

  • March 2021