What the health: Why do people panic buy and hoard items?

27 Mar 2020

person holding many rolls of toilet paperFear and hoarding in Australia

The most salient emotion that many people are experiencing in association with the COVID-19 pandemic is fear.

Fear emerges from a perception of actual or perceived threat and can be useful because it prepares the person for action. The way that the person acts will depend on the nature of the threat and their ability to act in response to the threat. Whether or not the person judges that they have any capacity for control over the threat will affect their response.

In the light of this, hoarding and panic buying can be seen as a response to the perceived threat of the pandemic. Hoarding is associated with a perception of lack of control over the risk and consequences of the pandemic. When there is a lack of control, the responses are more driven by attempts to change the emotions associated with the threat rather than addressing the “problem” of the threat.

Hoarding has the short-term effect of reducing the perceived threat (and associated fear) of the pandemic through attempts to ensure that the person has the necessary food and health resources. This is a largely ineffective strategy as this provides only a short term reduction in fear, meaning it is likely that the person will continue to panic buy and hoard when the fear returns.

It is worthwhile to briefly discuss the overall role that fear plays in the government’s management of the pandemic. In order to promote the safety behaviours that are necessary for the community to respond to the situation, the government needs to motivate the community to adopt safety behaviours. Two primary motivators in this context are altruism and fear. Altruism and community spirit can be stimulated through social messaging, etc, but fear is a much more potent motivator. While altruism is perhaps likely to generate longer term community wide resilience, fear can drive short term action which may be necessary under the circumstances.

Unfortunately, fear can spill over into over-preparation, and hoarding, defensiveness, and avoidance or denial of the reality of the threat if the person feels overwhelmed by, or unable to control,  the threat. The use of fear as a motivator must be used judiciously and with an eye to the future of the Australian community.

justin kenardyAuthor: Professor Justin Kenardy is a clinical psychologist and Professor in the UQ School of Psychology. His work focusses on the translation of applied psychology, more specifically clinical psychology, into novel cross- and interdisciplinary areas. This has been through work at the interface between psychological and physical health, preventative, integrative and novel intervention technologies.