Malice a forecourt: the psychology of panic buying

With some petrol stations reported at 500% of their usual demand this past Saturday, just why do humans panic buy, even when reassured there was no reason to? Fights broke out as countless drivers were seen filling up cans as well as their tanks at the pumps.

Despite an understanding of this harmful behaviour being crucial to preventing it, there is little real research on the phenomenon.

“Ask him how much toilet roll he has” came the tweets in response to my photo, depicting a man in Maidstone town centre filling up 12 cans in his boot – a picture that made it into both the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times (of which only the latter asked permission!).

Of course, we have seen this behaviour before only recently, at the beginning of the pandemic. I remember scouring the shops for nappies and struggling to get medication for my toddler who had just had surgery. Pasta and flour stocks, as well as toilet roll, were usually the first things to disappear from shelves. This time, we are already seeing some difficulties with product lines making it to the shelves, meaning food panic buying cannot be far away. Indeed, GMTV news this morning opened with Susanna Reid musing on panic buying at supermarkets given the HGV driver shortage. You would think she would have been more sensible than to suggest that, given that she begged the government to do something in March 2020, after a distressing video of a nurse emerged online, distraught that she couldn’t get any food after her shift. Reid, who was self-isolating at home at the time, said “How are the people at the front line going to maintain their health and stamina in the face of this if they can’t get fresh fruit and veg, and the food that they need to nourish themselves?”

Rational responses?

One could easily look back to the panic buying of the pandemic to explain the public response to the crisis and why it had been so extreme, despite many within the fuel industry – and government figures – urging us not to flock to the pumps. We are now primed for fear and many who decided not to rush out and panic buy beans, bog roll and pasta shapes may have found themselves short at the hands of those who did, vowing not to be quite as sensible next time.

With so many experiencing a reduction in pay due to furlough, being laid off or repeatedly having to isolate, those in fear for their jobs or in debt cannot afford to miss work because of their car being out of action. Since we have all lived with some level of fear for so long now, due to the crises surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic, one could easily argue that this kind of buying behaviour was to be expected. Is “panic buying” really a misnomer, however? Is it not rational to want to protect yourself from the threat of not being able to get what you need to live your life as normal? When does “preparation” tip over into irrationality?

Historically, we have always needed to prepare ourselves for times of famine and predict when we might not have access to all the resources we need for survival – or even just to maintain usual levels of comfort. We are also intensely social animals and our actions can sometimes became “herd behaviour”, imitating what others do. Fear is also a powerful motivator and seeing cause for concern on the news will often galvanise us to act immediately. When stories receive prominent media coverage, we often see the stories as far more important than perhaps they are in reality. What should have been a minor story: just a handful of BP’s garages were experiencing issues with their supply and a few stations had been closed in response rapidly became a huge one. These initial reports quickly prompted an uptick in purchases of fuel, meaning further coverage, prompting even more drivers to visit the pumps, anticipating issues and, in fact, causing them to occur. Our fuel buying behaviours changed in just a few hours and even those who considered themselves rational wanted to head off the issues of future shortages, even in the face of those pleading with motorists for calm. No one wants to find themselves without the means to travel when they need to. 

“Can see those mad people panic buying fuel from my bathroom”

Similar behaviours have been seen in other countries. Houston, Texas, 2017 saw issues when Hurricane Harvey caused issues with refineries and temporary delays in supplies to gas stations. People flocking to fill their cars only exacerbated the situation which caused price increases, similar to what we have seen in the UK in the last few days. Just as face masks and hand sanitiser prices rocketed in the early days of the pandemic, petrol prices have hit eye-watering levels in some towns.

“Fear and panic are integral human responses”

With people queueing for hours to just top up their cars and fill cans with far more petrol than they need or will use, we are simply doing our best to quell anxiety. It’s a psychological mechanism to help us cope with our anxiety over what might happen, exacerbated by the 24 hour news cycle and media hyperbole. The only way we can quell our terror is by taking action of some kind – whether we need to or not. A paucity of the products we use to earn money is a powerful motivator.

In a letter to the editor of the journal Psychiatry Research, Arafat et al suggests “epidemics and pandemics are the impending public health challenges whereby fear and panic are integral human responses historically” and state that this behaviour has been “observed… since the ancient period”. 

Despite the fact that there was no real scarcity of the resource (petrol), the fear that there would be due to panic buying of course sparked people to panic buy. “A perception of scarcity.. is strongly linked with panic buying behaviour.. and hoarding behaviours increase if the scarcity develops for the immediate necessaries”.

They also point to the “primitive part of our brain” which “becomes more prominent and indulges us in the behaviours that are necessary for survival”.

Yuen et al conducted a systematic review of “The psychological causes of panic buying following a health crisis and concluded:

“panic buying is influenced by (1) individuals’ perception of the threat of the health crisis and scarcity of products; (2) fear of the unknown, which is caused by negative emotions and uncertainty; (3) coping behaviour, which views panic buying as a venue to relieve anxiety and regain control over the crisis; and (4) social psychological factors, which account for the influence of the social network of an individual.”

Whilst I have been as guilty as others in my harsh judgement of panic buying and stockpiling (especially when doing so seems to risk endangering the public and the driver of a car that’s been made into a potential firebomb), it is impossible to really gauge the impact of the pandemic and its associated difficulties on the buying public’s behaviour. We have all been through a global trauma and the impact of the associated difficulties we have shared will take more than a generation to truly understand.