COVID-19: the science of stockpiling toilet rolls

In the wake of COVID-19, the Government has told us not to panic buy household essentials. But lots of us are ignoring that advice. What’s behind the urge to stockpile? And why the obsession with toilet rolls?

It turns out the science behind COVID-19 stockpiling is fascinating. The reason is that panic buying varies with the nature of the threat. The key distinction, according to Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, an expert in consumer and behavioural science at UCL, is between two types of panic:

  • disaster panic. This is people reacting to a crisis where we have reasonably precise information on its timing and intensity. For example, natural disasters like tornadoes, and
  • general panic, where we don’t, such as COVID-19

When we’re unsure when and where disaster will strike, panic buying is our only tool of control. But why stock up on first-world comforts like toilet paper first? Then think about essentials like food second? Tsivrikos says that this is psychological. Packages are large and prominently feature in aisles, so we notice shortages.

COVID-19 and social media

Never before has information about a new disease spread around an interconnected world more rapidly. While this has advantages (societies and individuals may be better prepared), it also has drawbacks. There is no doubt that social media has increased the risk of panic and paranoia. Plus misinformation has spread like a contagion. For examples, the virus escaped from a germ warfare research lab in Wuhan.

So, in the words of one leading expert:

“You’re not reacting to the virus, you’re reacting to the fear of going to happen if people all panic buy and that’s creating the panic buying which feeds the whole cycle,” she said, adding: “And that’s a problem”.

What do you think? Leave a comment below:

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

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