By: Dalana Burris, MS, LCDC, and Cameron Johnson

Fear-driven buying after environmental calamity has happened before

In 2011, after an earthquake near Japan caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant, there was a dramatic increase in the demand for an otherwise commonplace item. Sales of sea salt vaulted from approximately 200,000 units on March 15th to 1.56 million units the very next day in China out of fear that sea salt supplies would be corrupted by nuclear waste. Although the Chinese government had taken additional measures to ensure production would not be contaminated, sales of sea salt skyrocketed nonetheless. This phenomenon is similar behavior to the recent nationwide rush to stockpile items during the COVID-19 pandemic, regardless of whether or not the items would be needed in the future. Both incidents are examples of panic buying.

What is panic buying?

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When there is an anticipated scarcity of a certain resource people often try to acquire that resource in a frenzied way. However, this often drives a cycle that perpetuates panic buying behavior. When people see that others have honed in on a resource, this creates an idea among people that if they do not also buy these resources it will not be readily available for them when they have a need. In the face of imminent danger (whether real or perceived) it is a natural response to quickly gather necessities, but at times people’s view of the necessities can be compromised. The irrational stockpiling of items and reluctance to part with those items which are observed in panic buying is reminiscent (but distinctly separate from) the behaviors consistent with a hoarding disorder.

What is hoarding?

Hoarding disorder as defined by the DSM-5 is the “persistent difficulty discarding or parting with  possessions, regardless of their actual value, as a result of a strong perceived need to save the items and to distress associated with discarding them.” An individual who experiences hoarding disorder will experience distress at even the thought of parting with those items. This often results in excessive clutter and congestion that might impair their lives in relationships and can even affect one’s ability to work. Hoarding can result from a combination of rational, irrational, and emotional responses to a perceived scarcity. However, hoarding differs from panic buying in the level of distress that is experienced due to the prospect of being separated from their possessions (which at times can be debilitating). Yet, despite this key difference it is important to note that both can be triggered by similar events or perceived stressors.

Why does this occur? 

Humans perceive reality both rationally and emotionally. It is nearly impossible to separate reality from one’s emotional relationship to it. This natural process will affect our decision-making for both imminent dangers and natural disasters. According to the risk minimization theory, the key decision-making process is driven by self-preservation based risk management. For panic buyers, it is more acceptable to overestimate the extent of the scarcity and have a surplus than to underestimate the scarcity and be one of the have-nots. Panic buying and hoarding provide a sense of security and control. It can provide a sense of calm in an uncontrollable storm when one feels as if they have done what they could do within their power to reduce overall risk. However, this can result in very real consequences.

Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia and an expert in the psychology of pandemics said, in a recent interview, “the fear of scarcity can create real scarcities.” The downstream consequence of this fear makes it harder for people to acquire the resource who may actually have a greater need for it. Also, failure to enforce limits on the amount that people can buy can create problems for suppliers as well. The rapid increase in demand can overwhelm producers ill-equipped to accommodate the rate of production needed to meet demand.

When faced with an uncontrollable situation, like COVID-19, taking measured and controlled action can provide relief. Additionally, when fear and anxiety become the primary motivators these behaviors can increase. When media is dominated by rhetoric that emphasizes the urgency of the pandemic this can naturally increase stress. The recurrent images of empty shelves and media reports of reduction of supply can accelerate the perceived need to panic buy and hoard items even if those items have no relevance. For example, the panic buying of toilet paper during a respiratory virus pandemic. The simple observation of other’s behavioral and emotional responses can heighten anxiety increasing the likelihood of behavioral trends.

Finally, the innate motivation to avoid suffering (both real and perceived, physical or emotional) and survive fuels the behavior. While it may not be rational to hoard paper towels and toilet paper it feels as if those actions are reducing risk.

Therapeutic Interventions

Given that panic buying is the result of a desire to gain control in chaotic circumstances, the first step would be to acknowledge the difficult circumstances that we are in and the stress we are all under. To discuss with patients the innate desire to find ways to have control, and then explore ways to use this desire to better help the community (e.g., volunteering, etc.). It would also be important to remind them what they do have control over daily despite the current circumstances (e.g. daily schedule).

If panic buying and hoarding become problematic, one of the most effective modalities of treatment is Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). This intervention encourages the exploration of how thoughts and feelings affect behaviors. Identifying and challenging irrational beliefs about possessions, scarcity, risk of suffering, for example, can minimize and manage symptoms of anxiety, and worry. As uncomfortable emotions are reduced, space is created to cultivate behavioral changes. CBT also includes the behavioral intervention of stimulus control. Removing the factors that cultivate anxiety and worry, such as excessive media exposure and frequent trips to the grocery store, can allow the individual to reduce exposure to cues for uncomfortable emotions. Additionally, skills taken from motivational interviewing can be effective in moving an individual away from the emotions of uncertainty (worry, anxiety, distress) and towards finding the internal motivation necessary to make more positive decisions and accomplish the goals of security and safety.  

About the Authors

Dalana Burris, MS, LCDC, CSAT Candidate is an addictions counselor at The Menninger Clinic. She has more than 10 years of professional experience and currently serves as an addictions counselor on the Comprehensive Psychiatric Assessment Service. She has expertise in several areas, including substance use treatment, problematic sexual behavior, and gaming addiction. She also has advanced skills in cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapy.

Cameron Johnson is a research assistant at The Menninger Clinic. Cameron collects and manages treatment outcomes survey data, which Menninger uses to help track the symptoms of patients. Cameron earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Rice University in Houston.

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