Story at a glance

  • As public health officials push social distancing and self-isolation, people are crowding supermarkets and grocery stores for common supplies.
  • While some are calling the phenomenon “panic buying,” one expert says the real problem is misinformation.
  • Research shows that humans are more inclined to come together as a community in times of crisis than engage in selfish behavior.

“Don’t panic” isn’t always the most comforting thing to hear — especially if you weren’t panicking before. How do you keep people calm in the midst of a global pandemic? 

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, so are stories of panic buying, with photos showing empty store shelves where toilet paper or hand sanitizer should be. But Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology at the University of St. Andrews, says we don't know yet whether people are hoarding and stockpiling or just being sensible.  

“We are told that probably some form of isolation is coming, and therefore certain resources are critical,” said Reicher. “If you are then given information that other people are buying up all those resources and very soon the shelves will be empty, then of course it makes sense to you to go out and buy yourself.”

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So really, Reicher says, people aren’t panicking — they’re making rational decisions based on the information that is available to them. But that information can be faulty. It's called availability bias, meaning that our sense of things doesn't necessarily reflect how frequently they occur but how frequently they are reported in the world. It's the same reason people overestimate the number of murders, while underestimating the instance of petty crimes that are less likely to make the evening news.


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For every person hoarding toilet paper and stockpiling hand sanitizer, there are also people volunteering to share supplies and coming to the aid of those most at risk. But it’s the photos of empty store shelves that get the most retweets and shares, which means those are the images shaping the public perception. 

“If you’re led to believe that everybody else is competitive, everybody else is irrational, then it makes absolute sense for you to behave in exactly the same way,” Reicher said. 

All the stories of panic buying, price gouging and other selfish behaviors are pitting people against one another. But that's not necessarily their natural state. 

“Crucially, our ability to get through this crisis – and it is a real crisis – will be contingent upon our ability to come together as a community and have a sense of this is about us, not a sense of me and you,” Reicher said. “And that’s undermined when people come to believe that other people are not supportive, not there for them, but are their competitors.”

Some of the confusion also stems from the uncertainty over what will happen in the coming days. While other nations have issued statewide lockdowns and curfews, the response in the U.S. has been fragmented, varying from county to county

At a press conference on March 16, President Trump laid out guidelines for Americans to limit traveling and gathering and said the crisis could continue into July or August. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said the guidelines were only for the next 15 days, but would be constantly reevaluated. Meanwhile, Amazon has warned customers of delayed deliveries and items going out of stock, but said they are working "around the clock" with partners to expand their capacity.  

The best thing to do for now, Reicher said, is trust one another. 

“We need to respect people more. There’s a real danger of treating people as complete idiots and complete fools, because then, on the one hand, you don’t give them the real information that they need because you think they can’t cope with it, but number two you don’t use them as a resource to deal with a crisis,” he said.


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Published on Mar 16, 2020