Why people engage in panic buying in the face of the Coronavirus outbreak? How to manage our panic?

As a Honghonger, it is the first time I experienced the enormous impact of a disease outbreak on people’s buying behaviour. For a duration of more than few weeks, I cannot find a single pack of toilet papers on the shelf of the supermarket in my neighbourhood. Photos in social media showed people are hoarding toilet papers and rice at home. As far as I know, for the first time in Hong Kong history, armed robbers stole hundreds of toilet paper rolls.

In the face of the Coronavirus outbreak, people’s sense of control had decreased significantly. The daily increase of confirmed cases, the continuous accumulation of number of deaths, the unknowns of the nature of the COVID-19 and other possible psychological and economical impacts had increased our sense of uncertainty. People may try to obtain a limited sense of control by buying more necessities, such as rice, toilet papers, and facemasks. They may think that, despite all the uncertainties, at least, we could hoard enough stocks of necessities for future use.

As we are all belonging to some social group, it is inevitable that we will be influenced by our mates. In fact, panic buying is a phenomenon that can be explained by groupthink. Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon in which people make irrational or dysfunctional decisions in order to maintain harmony or show conformity to the group ones belong to. When our mates in some groups are obsessed with buying enough toilet papers or rice, we may also conform and engage in such panic buying.

Why are people more likely to be affected by groupthink in the face of Coronavirus outbreak?  When we face such an uncertain and threatening situation, the fear and anxiety center of our brain, the amygdala, is activated.     If the level of activation of the amygdala is high enough, it will hijack our rational brain, especially, the prefrontal cortex. At a result, we are more likely to be affected by the groupthink phenomenon.

To cope with our decreased sense of control and fear of uncertainty, we need to, first of all, be aware of our anxiety. When we acknowledge our anxiety, we need to embrace them and accept the decrease in sense of control and increase of uncertainty. When our anxiety is managed, we have to keep things in perspective. We need to rationally assess the current situation with the whole picture and act according to our rational thinking. This can help us to differentiate between credible and incredible sources of information.

For our psychological well-being, we can continue to maintain social connections (via online channels if physical connection is not feasible) and leisure activities to obtain a certain level of sense of control. Everyone of us need to take up social responsibility to prevent our fellow Hongkongers from suffering the negative impact of our panic buying.  Let’s think before we buy too much.

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