The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw consumers flock to stores to urgently stock up on items such as toilet paper and pasta.
The phenomenon, known as “panic shopping”, is now happening again in the UK – but this time it is the fuel people are behind. Continued panic buying is only going to end any fuel shortage. So what can be done to stop it?
Panic shopping is a natural reaction to a stressful experience. In particular, it is a response to uncertainty. When people feel that things are uncertain, they focus on something that gives them a sense of certainty and makes them feel in control.
Read more: Coronavirus: Why people are nervous about buying loo rolls and how to stop it
Of course, most people can’t recruit new lorry drivers or mobilize an army to help with deliveries—but they can stock up on fuel. In performing this action, they feel as if they are doing something proactive, and taking charge of the situation.
COVID-19 has added to the uncertainty of what the future might hold and increased anxiety for many, which is remarkable given that we know the current anxiety is a precursor to panic buying. So when people heard that there were concerns about the supply of petrol, it was no surprise that they started queuing up with extra jerry cans. Given the pandemic, people may be more vulnerable to this behavior than usual.
Interestingly, the act of buying can cause the brain to release small amounts of dopamine, sometimes referred to as the “reward chemical.” This also, at least partly, helps to explain the relief when people finally find a petrol station that still has fuel.
Herd mentality and the media
Humans are social animals, and therefore, we are often influenced by what other people are doing. We observe choices made by others and infer why they act the way they do. We assume that the majority have a better understanding of what is happening and panic buying is the right behavioral choice.
The media can play an important role in preventing panic buying because they guide the public’s perception of what people are generally doing. Constant exposure to images and reports of long queues at petrol pumps will make people feel like “everybody else is doing it”, potentially encouraging them to imitate this behavior. Where possible, it is better to avoid such coverage.
Read more: The game theory of panic-buying – and how to mitigate it
officials should be clear
Accurate and thoughtful communication is the key to allaying concerns, and therefore preventing people from panic buying. In such a situation, there is a need to assure the public that there will be no shortage of petrol, as well as to be aware of the solution – but it needs to be reassured. For example, announcing that 5,000 HGV drivers will be able to obtain temporary work visas without explaining how they will be recruited may not be considered entirely credible.
The way language is used can also affect people’s perception of a situation. It is encouraging to see that the government has advised councils not to use the words “panic” or “panic buy” in this discussion. In fact, the widespread use of the word “nervous” means that we tend to see others as nervous. And in thinking about theories of herd behavior, we tend to assume that others know what they’re doing—and we’re more likely to follow suit.
It is therefore important that the government, local authorities and the media be careful with the language they use during this time.
things you can do
If you are in the UK and currently affected by the crisis, ask yourself if you really need to buy petrol. If you decide you don’t really need it—perhaps you can leave your car at home and take public transportation—even this basic thought process can help take charge and reduce anxiety levels. There is a way to reduce.
If you’re worried about the prospect of not being able to drive your car, it’s a good idea to come up with a plan B. What specifically would you do if you found yourself with an empty tank? Could you perhaps take a trip to work with a neighbor whose car still has petrol? Check bus and train routes and travel times to see if this can be a solution.
By having a specific plan, you’ll feel like you’re in charge – albeit in a different way – and it can make you feel less inclined to take petrol immediately.