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Problem Solvers: The Psychology of Panic Buying

Posted at 10:39 PM, Mar 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-13 23:39:59-04

Empty store shelves, limits on how much you can buy and in extreme cases, some stores even stationing guards to keep people from clearing out the shelves.

The buying binge was sparked by the global coronavirus pandemic.

Problem solver Erin Conrad looks at what's driving normally rational people to panic, buy and hoard supplies.

A video from the Australian Broadcasting Company shows women in a brawl, fighting over toilet paper.

Psychology professor Dr. Daniel Sullivan says those rolls mean more than a reliable way to collect supplies. It's a way to feel like you've taken a least a little control in a situation that feels out of control.

"I think initially for many people it was these face masks, right. They sort of serve as this talisman," Dr. Sullivan said. "This fetish object, right, where you can wear these masks to get a sense of protection."

He says there can be a psychological benefit to collecting things that give you a sense of control, but that drive can crank up your stress and distract you from the bigger need to listen to the advice of health experts.

Dr. Sullivan says humans have evolved to be sensitive to the idea that something is contaminated, and we are triggered by the idea that something's getting scarce.

"And so, there is a sense in which these things can spiral out of proportion, because as soon as our attention is drawn to the fact that well, everyone else is doing this thing getting this toilet paper," Dr. Sullivan said. "We have a kind of knee jerk reaction that I need to do this, too."

Dr. Sullivan says modern media and social media deluge us with fast changing and sometimes bad information in ways people did not have to deal with during the Spanish flu epidemic more than 100 years ago.

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