'Antidote to anxiety is control': The psychology behind the coronavirus panic buying

With coronavirus fears swirling and palpable, panic buying is one way people can get a handle on a rapidly changing, and increasingly scary, situation.

“The antidote to anxiety really is control, and what people can control right now is buying things,” said Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and professor emerita at Golden Gate University, in an interview with Yahoo Money. “But we kind of rounded the bend into what doesn't make sense and what is clearly irrational — otherwise known as panic buying.” 

A looming threat of disruption to life and routine — such as hurricanes and blizzards — typically sends the masses to grocery and supply stores for provisions. But Americans are familiar with these regionalized weather disasters and what to expect the aftermath to look like. 

Coronavirus, or COVID-19, is an entirely different threat with little precedent in modern times. The measures governments are taking are equally unparalleled: shelter-in-place declarations and the shutdown of schools, workplaces, and social centers.

Customers queue to buy supplies of toilet paper in a supermarket in Hong Kong, Feb. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Faced with the sudden cultural shift from life outside of the home to being cooped up for the foreseeable future, otherwise rational people have become irrational actors, Yarrow said. Large grocery hauls of dry goods might seem like overkill or even comical, but it’s one way people can make sense of something that’s inconceivable. 

“That's really people saying: ‘I need to be in control of something in this situation and since I can't control this virus, I'm going to control this,’ which is stocking up and preparing," she said.

‘Everybody else is stocking up’

Social pressure is a powerful emotional manipulator, Yarrow said. It’s a natural and reactionary response to how we’re hardwired rather than a reflection of intelligence.

“We can't help it when we see other people buying erratically and purchasing too much stuff, we feel like we should, too,” Yarrow said. 

“People are receiving a lot of messages both in the news, but also when they go to the store and they see empty shelves,” she added. This makes them feel like: ‘Everybody else is stocking up. I definitely better be stocking up.’" 

‘The poster child of excessive buying’

Nearly empty shelves, that usually hold toilet paper, facial tissue and paper towels, are viewed March 14, 2020, in a Target store in Lacey, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Yarrow said it’s the social media images of the global pandemic that are the most visceral and influential.

Americans are used to seeing a run on milk, eggs, and bread before a snowstorm or weather event. But in the last few weeks, it’s the need to buy toilet paper that has surged. 

“Toilet paper has become the poster child of excessive buying,” Yarrow said. 

An empty bread or egg shelf isn’t as visually impactful as empty toilet paper shelves because of the size and space. Stores might keep similar quantities of both toilet paper and bread, but toilet paper is big and bulky and takes up more physical space, so its absence is more noticeable. 

“I think it's because of the visuals of toilet paper, which cues that sort of social animal in us and makes us feel like we better get ours,” Yarrow said.

‘Well, better safe than sorry.’

Canadians purchase food and essential items in Canada on March 7, 2020. Stores across the country are facing empty shelves as face masks, disinfectant and toilet paper shortages have been reported. (Photo: Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)

For those with the financial means and space to stockpile, part of panic buying is tied to avoiding guilt, Yarrow said. For those who have children or parents who depend on them, they are acting on the impulse to buy more now to avoid potentially disappointing loved ones. 

“I think a lot of these people are thinking to themselves: ‘Well, better safe than sorry,’” she said. “‘I'd rather spend too much right now and have all this then feel guilty down the line that my kid is the one that doesn't have the peanut butter sandwich when everybody else does or our family doesn't have toilet paper, but everybody else does.’"

Stephanie is a reporter for Yahoo Money and Cashay, a new personal finance website. She can be reached at stephanie.asymkos@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.

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