Booze, peanut butter and guns: Why Americans' shopping lists changed during coronavirus

Booze, peanut butter and guns: Why Americans' shopping lists changed during coronavirus
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In an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, most people have been forced to practice social distancing. For many, distancing has resulted in quarantining at home and isolating from not only strangers, but friends and family too. 

Reports have surfaced of a variety of responses to such distancing. Some of these behaviors may not seem so surprising, such as increased alcohol purchases. Research has shown increased drinking does sometimes occur as a way to cope with unwanted emotions such as anxiety. For others, alcohol consumption may simply be a way to escape boredom

This may explain why over the past month I've heard "rosé all day" uttered so frequently in the grocery store. 

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People aren’t just drinking more during this coronavirus crisis; they’re buying guns too. The FBI reported a spike in gun sale background checks in March.

What about this pandemic is making Americans line up in record numbers in front of gun stores? Why might people suddenly feel the need to purchase a firearm? 

One reason may have to do with perceptions of the government. Some people, particularly liberals, perceive a massive failure on the part of the Trump administration in how it has responded to the virus outbreak. Others, particularly conservatives, tend to be less inclined to think that people should be reliant on the government for things like healthcare in the first place.

With something like a pandemic, there's really not much one person can do to address this problem, other than practice social distancing and good hygiene. However, owning a gun may increase people’s sense of personal security during the pandemic. This is consistent with social psychology research that shows control is a fundamental human need people strive to maintain, even if it is based on an illusion

Conformity is another reason gun sales have increased. There are two general explanations as to why people conform: to be liked and to be right. To be liked, people sometimes imitate the actions of others so they can get closer to them. However, given current calls for social distancing, this explanation seems less applicable. The second explanation, to be right, studies in social psychology have consistently shown during times of uncertainty, people often look to others as a guide for not only how to act, but also what to think and feel

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Indeed, we are living in a time of mass uncertainty. Once some people learn that others are buying guns, it might appear like the appropriate thing to do. The same explanation likely applies to why people have been hoarding peanut butter and toilet paper

Lastly, perhaps America has seen a spike in gun purchases because people feel their freedom to live normal lives is being constrained by the government. Despite the fact that our government was slow to take the coronavirus seriously, people may be worried that massive city-wide quarantines and forced closures of businesses are the first steps in a government takeover. Americans value freedom and choice, and some may believe that the government will eventually start enforcing more restrictive gun laws to create a more docile, less armed public when it starts to exercise more control over people's lives. 

Let me be clear, I am not saying the government will do this, but it is a fear that some people may have. Studies have shown that a similar reaction occurred when Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Hill's Campaign Report: What to watch for in Tuesday's primaries Obama announces first wave of 2020 endorsements Red flags fly high, but Trump ignores them MORE was elected president; gun sales spiked because people thought gun laws would become more restrictive. 

What can local authorities do to ensure public safety during this pandemic and help people engage in more sensible behaviors? The most important thing they can do is try to take control of the narrative by stopping the spread of false or deceptive information. 

Authorities need to establish clear, fact-based norms for people and help citizens understand the importance of remaining calm during this uncertain time. 

Marlone D. Henderson is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Henderson has published several scientific articles on distancing and its effect on human thought and behavior.