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Panic Buying Is a Natural (But Extreme) Reaction to the Unknown

Man shopping for essentials at a store with bare shelves.
Alejandro Bascuas/Shutterstock

Fear of an imminent disaster can lead people to panic and do anything they deem necessary for survival. Sometimes, that translates into seemingly irrational behavior, like hoarding a year’s worth of toilet paper. Why is that? Psychologists weigh in.

Whether it’s an incoming hurricane or wildfires that make travel difficult, the natural human reaction to such emergencies will be triggered by self-preservation instincts. Some will seek refuge, others will stockpile food supplies to last for weeks—it makes perfect sense. But what happens when something new comes along, something unknown and unpredictable that’s putting the lives of millions of people at risk?

Amid the current coronavirus pandemic that’s bringing the entire world to a halt, you might be wondering why are people terrified of running out of toilet paper. After all, the virus causes respiratory problems, not digestive issues. So, how do you explain that response to such an emergency?

According to psychologist John M. Grohol, our emotions can sometimes get the best of us and compromise our reasoning, causing us to react in unpredictable ways in the face of pending doom. He says:

“Humans perceive reality in two primary ways: rationally and intuitively (or emotionally). Much as a person might try, it is nearly impossible to divorce reality from your experiential and emotional connection to it. You cannot just be a robot (although some people are much better at this than others) and act 100% of the time in a rational, logical manner. This impacts our decision-making when it comes to disaster planning.”

In other words, the way you act in an emergency situation depends on how you perceive it. If you label it as code red, you’re likely to panic; if you label it as code yellow, you’re likely to put more thought into your actions and make more reasonable decisions.

However, that doesn’t fully explain the act of hoarding in the midst of a crisis. In a piece for PsychCentral, John Grohol dives a little deeper into this topic and tells us what drives people to panic buy and why. If you’re looking to learn a thing or two about the psychology behind urgency-triggered behavior, we highly recommend you take a peek.

Carla Cometto Carla Cometto
Carla has been writing professionally for five years and blogging for many more. She's worked as a journalist, photographer, and translator. She's also an avid traveler who hopes to inspire a sense of curiosity and adventure in others through her writing. Read Full Bio »
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