‘We’re in survival mode’ – the behavioural principles behind the UK’s coronavirus panic-buying

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Many supermarkets have struggled to keep shelves filled as the UK stocks up for a period in isolation.
Many supermarkets have struggled to keep shelves filled as the UK stocks up for a period in isolation.

Queues, panic-buying and food-hoarding have seen many supermarket shelves stripped around the country as the UK takes isolation measures – and prompting a spike in profits too.

Morrisons yesterday was reported to have seen a strong surge in year-end finances as people look to stockpile key supplies in readiness for a prolonged period at home as coronavirus spreads across the UK.

As a result, the firm has revealed plans to create 3,500 new jobs and revamp its home delivery service to capitalise on the surge in demand.

Yet these new consumer habits continue to come in the face of government and advice and direct reassurance that there is no need to panic-buy as food supplies remain plentiful – so what’s behind these peculiar habits?

Dr Ali Fenwick – a scientist at Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands who specialises in applying behavioural traits to business performance – says there are four key reasons.

“The reason we are panic buying due to the imminent threat of Covid-19 is because the brain’s survival mode overrides any rational decision-making,” says Dr Fenwick.

He says the four key motivations behind panic-buying are:

Survival mode 

When we are put in an uncertain or threatening situation, our more primitive part of the brain takes over. We fall back on survival mode, suppressing or distorting rational decision-making, which in case of grocery shopping leads to bulk buying. We are buying to ‘survive’.

Although the government promises there will be no disruption to food supply, we don’t know this for sure as most of us have not been in a similar situation before. So, we rather buy more food than we normally would.

The scarcity effect

When products become scarce, people perceive them as more valuable. We are more willing to go out and buy, and even pay more, for scare products. Scarcity drives buying behaviours, even for products we might not actually want. Which explains why we buy more food than we need to have or why so many people are currently on the run for toilet paper.

Herd behaviour

Although you might not bulk buy yourself, the fact other people around you are, creates an immediate urge for you to do the same. In uncertain situations, we tend to follow what other people do or say, especially people similar like us. So, if your friend, family member, or colleague is bulk-buying you feel you should do the same.

Sense of control 

The global pandemic is a cause for a lot of uncertainty in the world and has resulted in many countries closing their borders and imposing self-isolation. These external constraints create an internal need to exert personal control as a way to feel safe. Being able to buy things provides us with a sense of control over our surroundings, which also leads to us buying more than we need to have.

Dr Fenwick said: “In summary, bulk-buying is caused by various psychological and environmental cues which throw rational-thinking out of the window.

“When in survival mode, we let mainly our emotions drive decisions and are more susceptible to social influences. So, we will rush out and buy more because we believe others are doing the same.”

Dr Ali Fenwick.
Dr Ali Fenwick.

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