Panic-buying a natural reaction to uncertainty, behavioral experts say

Behavioral experts looked at the panic-buying that swept through metro Atlanta in recent days and were not appalled or shocked.

The rush of consumers to markets, the long lines, the shelves emptied of staples, the anxious expressions – all were very human, even sensible reactions to a noxious mix of danger, uncertainty and chaos.

"I am not surprised," said Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.

In a crisis, people are desperate for action, he said. "We can't tell people that this is going to be terrible and then tell them to do nothing."

For several months, Americans have been given a steadily more frightening series of reports about the coronavirus. In the past week, the news intensified with a rising number of COVID-19 cases, a plunging stock market and a series of high-profile cancellations that threatened to tip the economy into recession.

Americans were also told that those exposed to the virus would be quarantined for weeks, including some well-known figures.

So consumers had good reason to be worried, but they were given no guidance about how to prepare for a possible quarantine, what to buy or how much, Ariely said.

That’s why panic feeds on itself, he said. “When we don’t get a rule for behavior, we look at the people around us.”

March 13, 2020 Atlanta: Panic buying occurred at the Kroger Marketplace at Glenwood Avenue in Atlanta on Friday, March 13, 2020. The Coronavirus pandemic is affecting everyone across the State of Georgia and Metro Atlanta.  JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM


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The worry about quarantines and "social distancing" gave people some rational reasons to panic, said Catherine Eckel, director of the Behavioral Economics Program at Texas A&M.

Yet there is a line between action and over-reaction, she said.

"It's uncertain and people are stressed and scared and if you have to spend two weeks at home, you've gotta have stuff," Eckel said. "But to buy a year's supply of toilet paper? That's nuts."

But even overreaction serves to make people feel better, said Nadine Kaslow, professor of psychiatry and behavioral services at Emory's medical school, as well as chief psychologist of the Grady Health System.

People need to assert control, even when it’s an illusion, she said. “People feel so uncertain and so scared. So buying things is a way to say, ‘I’m going to take care of myself.’”

Americans have been told how to minimize their personal exposure to the virus, but individual actions can put other people at a disadvantage, she said. "If you have a lot of toilet paper, it's not going to keep you from getting COVID-19. And it might prevent other people – like someone who is poor or elderly – from getting it."

What is especially unnerving during a crisis is the feeling of being on your own, Kaslow said. “We all feel like ‘I’m going to take care of myself.’ But we don’t have a sense that we are going to take care of the community.”