Hundreds of shoppers wait in line for a Costco in Altamonte Springs to open on March 19. This location was out of stock on hand sanitizer, toilet paper, bleach and other high-demand sanitation products as a result of the coronavirus response.


Selfish. Stupid. They’ve been called all sorts of things, the people who are descending on stores in a coronavirus-fueled panic to empty the shelves of pasta, beans, rice, meat, chicken, toilet paper, soap and other items. Greedy. Heartless.

Psychologists and behavioral scientists have another word for them: Human.

“When people feel uncertain, they tend to focus on things that bring them certainty,” said Uma Karmarkar, a neuroeconomist at the University of California, San Diego. “Most of us don’t have the ability to make new vaccines or enact new policies, but the one action that we can control, that feels like we are doing something, is to stock up on supplies.”

A natural response

This is not new. Panic-buying happened during earlier pandemics. It happened after 9/11. It happens in advance of hurricanes along the Atlantic coast.

“It’s a natural response to a stressful experience,” said Lisa Kath, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

But the coronavirus is new. Its mechanisms and lethality are not fully understood. With hurricanes, people know what they’re in for, and for how long. They’ve been through them before. And survived.

“With this, we don’t yet know the boundaries,” Kath said. “We have no frame of reference. That just amplifies the fear.”

‘We’ll make room’

Amplified fear makes people go into a store and buy 12 rolls of paper towels instead of two. Four boxes of rotini instead of one. Three bottles of hand soap when there are already five at home.

It leads to scenes like this one at the Ralph’s in San Diego’s Mission Valley section on a recent morning, shortly after the store opened. An employee wheeled out a cart with a box of packaged chicken on it. He opened the box to put the chicken in a display case.

A shopper reached around him, into the box, and grabbed packages to drop into her basket.

One, two, three, four … .“We don’t have room in the freezer for all that,” a man who was shopping with her said.

“We’ll make room,” she snapped.

Janet Johnson, 63, left, and her granddaughter Quantella Johnson, 32, purchase packs of toilet paper due to coronavirus concerns on March 12 a Family Dollar store in Flint, Michigan.

Lines for groceries

The panic-buying took off after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus
outbreak a pandemic on March 11. Additional spikes have followed other pronouncements by government officials, including March 19’s order by Gov. Gavin Newsom telling Californians to stay at home except for “necessary activities.”

Grocery shopping is OK under the order, and on the morning of March 20 people started lining up outside a Vons in San Diego’s Clairemont section before it opened.

Like other markets, it has put in place restrictions aimed at hoarding, such as limiting how much toilet paper, chicken, meat, eggs and other items people can buy. Within a couple of hours, much of that was gone anyway.

“Struck out again,” a man looking for rice said to his companion.

Uncertain about need

Store managers and food industry analysts keep stressing that there is no shortage in the supply chain of the coveted items, but the surge in demand is outstripping their ability to keep things on the shelves for long. If people would just buy what they need, officials said, there would be enough for everyone.

That message apparently isn’t getting through for several reasons, the behavioral experts said.

For one thing, we have been told to get ready for at least two weeks of self-quarantine, just in case. Some hoarding is required. But many people who have been advised for decades to prepare similarly for earthquakes and wildfires, don’t know how much to buy. In the middle of an unfamiliar crisis, that can lead to overstocking.

Around the country, there are plenty of empty shelves liked this Giant grocery store on March 20 in Washington, D.C.

Scarcity scares us

So, too, does a desire to get in and out of the store quickly to avoid getting infected. Just grab it and go.

And when people see others filling their carts to the brim, they do it, too. Humans are social beings who measure the danger of different situations by the reactions of people around them. A herd instinct kicks in.

Then there are all the images on the internet of empty shelves, which scream one word: Scarcity.

“The idea of scarcity is an incredibly powerful one, especially in Western cultures,” said Karmarkar, whose research looks at how consumers make decisions. “Think about all the times you’ve been shopping on the internet and ‘Only One Left’ pops up. We’re conditioned to want it now. There are a lot of messages pushing us in that direction.”

Dealing with fear

Kath, the San Diego State University psychologist, said she thinks it’s important for people as they head out to shop to recognize and label the dominant emotion many are feeling: fear.

“The coronavirus is so far beyond our experience, we don’t feel any sense of control,” she said. “The fear is large, so the behavior is larger.”

She said it would help if shoppers are more self-aware. “Recognize that what you are doing in response to the stress is a natural behavior, but take a deep breath and ask yourself, ‘How much of this do I really need?’ Move from an automatic response to a thoughtful or reasoned response.”



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