Wednesday 28 March 2012

The logic of ‘panic buying’

This week, the government (and the mass media) have been criticized for promoting ‘panic-buying’ of petrol in the context of a possible tanker drivers strikeHere at Sussex University, we have been looking at the use of the word ‘panic’, and at the kinds of behaviours that are sometimes labelled in this way. We have also worked alongside emergency planners and crowd safety management professionals on this question of communication in possible emergency situations. Based on this work, there are three simple points to make about the current situation of supposed ‘panic-buying’.

Run on the Seamen's Savings' Bank during the so-called ‘panic’ of 1857 (courtesy of Wikipedia commons)


1, Don’t say ‘don’t panic’

The first point is that the advice ‘don’t panic’ is worse than useless. When those in authority say ‘don’t panic’, or even ‘stay calm’, the rest of us know by this that there is definitely something we should be anxious about – for why else would they be warning us in this way? And why else should they be so concerned about our emotional responses if not because they think there is something that we might ‘panic’ about? In the present case, the advice that there was no crisis, but that people should fill up their cars just in case, was as good as advice to act exactly as though a crisis was imminent and therefore to fill up as much as we can.

2, Belief that there is ‘panic’ makes it logical to act individualistically

The advice ‘don’t panic’ is based on the mistrust by the government of the (potentially irrational) ‘masses’. In turn it sows mistrust. It does this in two ways. First, the advice communicates that the government is holding something (scary) back from the public, so creates mistrust between public and government. Second, reference to ‘panic’ risks creating mistrust amongst members of the public themselves. When the government and the mass media tell us that our neighbours are ‘panic-buying’, we imagine those around us acting individualistically, rushing to hoard goods for themselves. And if we imagine that everyone else is acting this way, it becomes foolishly self-sacrificial to do otherwise oneself. Rather, it becomes completely logical to look after number one. The result is that we trust our neighbours less to act patiently and in the collective interest.

3, ‘Panic buying’ is not panic

The third point is that the large queues and the rush to stock up does not really fit the criteria for panic. Journalists reporting from the scene of petrol queues note with surprise the calm, boredom and stoicism of the people waiting in line. ‘Panic’ is a clinical condition marked by an excessive fear and anxiety reaction, the physiological signs of which include raised heart rate, shortened breath, sweating and so on. This excessive anxiety prompts reckless, uncontrolled behaviour. People queuing for petrol in so-called ‘panic buying’ may be acting in their personal interest rather than the collective interest, but this is cognitively driven rather than an instinctive ‘flight or fight’ response. The queuing and bulk-buying  is logical - given people's reasonable beliefs about others’ behaviour and their reasonable mistrust of the authorities.  And there is no spread of irrational beliefs or emotions through these crowds. As I have argued elsewhere, there is no evidence to support the argument that crowds are susceptible to the uncritical spread of simple emotions through so-called ‘contagion:‘mass panic’ is a myth

It is often the mass media, more than the politicians, who mobilize the ‘panic’ cliché to describe consumer queuing and stock piling. It is perhaps encouraging to report, therefore, that not all journalists are so lazy. After an interview we gave on Radio Leicester to discuss our ESRC research project on mass emergency behaviour, the reporters were so convinced by the argument that they made it a policy not to use the term in future.

However, we don’t think that solutions to the problems produced by mutual mistrust and individualism lie only or essentially in changing the messages given out by those in authority. It was notable that, in his nervous back-tracking, David Cameron referred to ‘resilience’ as just a quality of the state and its functionaries. We have been exploring the informal resilience of crowds, which expresses itself in solidarity and is a function of shared social identity among crowd membersWe are currently running some experiments to show that, when people think of themselves in terms of their social identities (e.g., ‘me as a member of my community’) they will be more cooperative, less ready to push in to queues, and more willing to share dwindling supplies with strangers than when they think of themselves in terms of their personal identities (e.g., ‘me as distinct from others in my community’). If the outcomes of the behaviours labelled as 'panic-buying' are dysfunctional for the collective (e.g., more acute shortages for most as the minority hoard goods) it is precisely because people in the crowd are acting reasonably as individuals,  rather than as members of a psychologically united crowd; cf. Mintz, 1951.)


Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity amongst emergency survivors.British Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 487-506. DOI:10.1348/014466608X357893

Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). The nature of collective resilience: Survivor reactions to the 2005 London bombingsInternational Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 27, 66-95.

Mintz, A. (1951). Non-adaptive group behavior. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 46, 150-159.

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