Did you ever think that you would ever see a day when people will fight over buying a roll of toilet paper? Yet, here we are. Panic buying seems to have become more contagious than the new virus itself as the coronavirus outbreak keeps spreading across the world.
But why are we losing our peace of mind over hoarding irrelevant stuff? And how is hoarding toilet papers even related to washing hands regularly! Why are we becoming so paranoid, when all we need to do is stay safe? The answer is uncertainty.
Uncertainty and panic buying
It makes sense if you want to store some food, water and essentials during an epidemic as you are uncertain about how the virus might affect our society in the coming days. But toilet paper? With the growing number of confirmed victims of COVID-19, countries are taking preventive steps and promoting social distancing to prevent the virus from spreading further. As our future becomes uncertain, a lot of us are starting to panic and becoming increasingly anxious about the whole thing.
But this is not anything new. Mass panic during emergencies is fairly common and is often a bigger threat than the primary disaster itself. Whenever we think that we may be in danger, our fight or flight response kicks in and we make some silly, reckless, and sometimes dangerous, decisions. Buying supplies out of panic has been a rather familiar way for us to deal with uncertainty during catastrophes.
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In case of natural disasters like a flood or hurricane, most of us have a fairly clear idea about what exact supplies we might need to survive the disaster. However, in the case of the coronavirus outbreak, most people are unclear about how it might affect us and what we might need to get through this. It is mostly due to an ambiguous environment of uncertainty that people are panic buying something as simple as toilet paper.
Taking control during coronavirus outbreak
But why are we panicking irrationally instead of preparing to stay safe and protect our families? Because panic is a survival mechanism. In a National Geographic article, Professor Karestan Koenen of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health explains “When you’re seeing extreme responses. It’s because people feel like their survival is threatened and they need to do something to feel like they’re in control.”
What exactly is forcing us to panic buy things that are not even considered essentials? According to a CNBC report, the simple answer may be the psychology of “retail therapy”, believes consumer psychologist Paul Marsden.
Retail therapy is all about buying items and materials to lift our moods and “manage our emotional state.” Marsden adds “It’s about ‘taking back control’ in a world where you feel out of control.” Making purchases provides us a feeling of control and autonomy and makes us feel that we have prepared to face a catastrophe in whatever ways we can.
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The psychology of panic buying
However, there is a significant difference between preparing for a disaster and panic buying during the coronavirus outbreak, believes Steven Taylor, clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia. According to Taylor, panic buying is driven by anxiety and fear of the unknown. Similar levels of mass panic have been witnessed throughout history, such as during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the Y2K scare and the SARS 2003 outbreak.
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According to a BBC report, “Panic buying helps people feel in control of the situation.” Taylor believes “Under circumstances like these, people feel the need to do something that’s proportionate to what they perceive is the level of the crisis. We know that washing your hands and practicing coughing hygiene is all you need to do at this point.”