Why all the Panic Buying?

I’m sure you have bared witness to the chaos that is our supermarkets. If you haven’t, you are one of the lucky ones! Shelves being emptied in minutes. People queuing for hours to get in first. Mass hoarding of toilet paper and hand soap. A lot of us have gone quite a bit overboard with our shopping habits. But why?

The clue is in the name; panic buying. We are acting with fear, and that can be a very dangerous motivator. But in terms of how fear can help us protect our health and wellbeing, there is a theory that can explain why this is all happening…

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The Protection Motivation Theory (Rogers, 1975) was developed to understand how we cope with certain threats to our health. Over the years this theory has been used to inform advertisements and campaigns to stop people doing unhealthy things (i.e. smoking), or to promote behaviours that protect people from bad things happening to them (i.e. UV protection and skin cancer). There is debate about a fear-based approached to health behaviour change, both in it’s ethics and effectiveness. But what this theory can still do is help us to understand how someone in everyday life may feel motivated to do something, based on their fear of the situation.

The theory starts with 4 constructs, that inform the decisions we make about the threat to our health:

  • Threat Severity: Our beliefs on how severe the threat is in general.
  • Threat Vulnerability: How much do we feel that we are susceptible to the threat.
  • Response Efficacy: Do we feel that a particular behaviour in response to the threat is effective.
  • Response Costs: What would it cost us to do the thing that we feel will protect us from the threat.

Other factors like our perceived self-efficacy (i.e. how much we believe we are capable in acting out a certain behaviour), and the intrinsic rewards of a behaviour (i.e. what do we get out of it) also come into play here. But essentially these 4 things lead us to evaluate the threat, and act in a certain way to cope with that threat.

So how does this apply to our panic buyers?

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Well the threat to us all at the moment is obviously catching COVID-19. But, there isn’t a lot that we can do as individuals to stop that. We can respect social distancing and stay at home as much as possible. But we all need to eat, and keep ourselves clean…

So for someone panic buying, there is probably a lot going on emotionally and mentally for them. The threat is high, both in it’s severity and how vulnerable we all are. We can all catch the virus, no matter how old or healthy we are. And as responsible citizens if we catch the virus, we should stay at home. But we also don’t want to starve during a tight quarantine. How do we cope?

The response is to take measures to avoid just that. With the threat being high, they are motivated to do the thing they think will help most. The response, which is effective and doesn’t cost them personally too much, being hoarding all of the dry foods and bog roll, helping them to personally cope with the situation.

What can we do to stop this?

Panic buying is not the best strategy to take, as though it may help you to buy up a lot of supplies all at once, others are left without. And when that happens, they need to go out more often, spreading the virus quicker, making the situation last a lot longer. Not to mention it’s just kind of rude!

If you know someone who is guilty of doing this, then the question is how can you help them to stop behaving so irresponsibly. You could reason with them, but as we have seen with this theory, their motivations are not rational. They’re emotional. So that’s how you need to connect with them.

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Empathise with them about how they’re feeling during this time, and connect with them about how stressful and scary this all seems. Once you have that base, then you can begin talking about how their hoarding may be doing more damage than good in the long run, and that we all need to work together to get through this.

Are there any issues with this theory?

Of course, no model is completely perfect, and the Protection Motivation Theory doesn’t take into account a lot of social aspects that motivate our health behaviours, and decision making. There is a lot of misinformation going around the internet about COVID-19, sometimes with the intent to cause more panic. We should stay vigilant about this, and stick to trusted sources of support during this time (i.e. the NHS).

The theory also hasn’t been updated in quite a long time, and so we can only speculate whether it is still up to scratch in understanding and predicting health behaviour. For the time being though, the theory can help us understand why so many of us are acting a little silly right now, and not thinking of our fellow man.

For up to date information on COVID-19, please go to the NHS website on what you can do to protect yourself and your local community:


For the Psychologists…

Rogers, R. W. (1975). A protection motivation theory of fear appeals and attitude change. The Journal of Psychology91(1), 93-114.

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