Hoarding. That’s a word we used to mostly associate with dragons who protect the treasure in their caves. The coronavirus health crisis has shown that some of us have a small dragon inside of us. A dragon that likes stockpiling and hoarding products because we fear our lives may be in danger.
From toilet paper and hand sanitizer to food with a long shelf life, some people are buying up massive amounts of things and leaving very little for everyone else who might actually need these things. Twitter user NatFigBar shared a post she saw on Facebook about how we should all avoid our instinct to stockpile things because everyone else is doing this. Because this hurts others more than it helps us.
While some people supported NatFigBar’s message that we should all calm down, others responded that this is a question of survival and that they and their families come first.
What we’re seeing now is a battle between social responsibility and survival, public and personal interests. At the end of the day, it’s up to all of us to come together to get over the crisis, not fragment into tiny competing factions.
Bored Panda reached out to David Savage, associate professor of behavioral and microeconomics at the University of Newcastle in Australia, about stockpiling supplies and panic buying. However, Dr. Savage stated that what we’re seeing now can’t technically be called “panic” because the coronavirus situation doesn’t meet the scientific criteria for that term.
“What I think is actually occurring is not panic, but we are succumbing to several other behavioral issues, specifically herd behavior and loss aversion (regret),” he said.
“When we see others acting in a certain way we have historical makeup that wants us to conform with the group… i.e. we should also do the same. Or at the very least we stop and think about the behavior and wonder if we should also be doing that. This is also ingrained in us through social norms where we are supposed to act in a specific way in certain circumstances (think women and children first).”
Dr. Savage continued: “The other issue is the loss aversion, this is caused because we experience losses much more keenly than gains. Losing $100 feels worse than winning $100 (research shows it is actually about double, i.e. losing $100 feels like losing $200). So when we see shelves being cleared out we want to make sure that we don’t miss out, the other problem here is regret, if we later realize that we needed the toilet paper and we didn’t get it when we had the chance we will really feel bad.”
“Both of these can lead to overstocking rather than under, and game theory tells us that if we know that the shelves will be empty when the pandemic is officially called we want to get in a little early. But, so does everyone else… so we get in even earlier… then so does everyone else… This is called backward induction. Eventually, people would act immediately rather than risk others getting in before them.”
Dr. Savage pointed out that the decisions we make under uncertainty are more “volatile” than those we make in a rational (“cold”) state. “It is rational to prepare for something bad that looks like it is likely to occur, it is not rational to buy 500 cans of baked beans for what would likely be a two-week isolation period.”
Meanwhile, Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia who wrote The Psychology of Pandemics, warned that irrational stockpiling can lead to price gouging and scalping.
“If the price of a roll of toilet paper is tripled, that’s seen as a scarcer commodity to acquire, which can lead to anxiety,” he pointed out.
Tailor also explained that we have to make a distinction between disaster preparation and panic buying. The former is rational and useful. The latter is irrational and fueled by anxiety. We try to reduce that anxiety by buying more than we need and queueing for hours on end.
“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,” Taylor said.
“But for many people, hand-washing seems to be too ordinary. This is a dramatic event, therefore a dramatic response is required, so that leads to people throwing money at things in hopes of protecting themselves.”