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Panic buying during health crises is influenced by perception of the threat and scarcity of products, a fear of the unknown, and a desire to maintain control

Yuen KF, Wang X, Ma F, Li K. The psychological causes of panic buying following a health crisis International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020; 17(10): 3513.

Review question

      What are the psychological causes of panic buying during health crises?

Background

      In survival psychology, it is widely understood that individuals may go through behavioural changes before, during and following major events such as natural disasters and disease outbreaks, which can potentially disrupt social lives or even threaten individuals’ health.

      One such behaviour is panic buying, which occurs when consumers buy unusually large amounts of products before, during, or after a perceived disaster or in anticipation of a large price increase or shortage.

      In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, panic buying became a frequent occurrence in many countries, leading to stockouts and supply chain disruptions.

      The aim of this systematic review is to explore, identify, and synthesize the psychological causes of panic buying, which is a relatively new and unexplored area in consumer behaviour research.

How the review was done

      Review authors conducted a search of a large research database for eligible English-language studies published before March 2020.

      Searches were conducted using keywords such as panic buy, stockpile, hoard, purchase, behaviour, cause, factor, disrupt, and disaster.

      A total of 277 papers were retrieved and screened for the review, 27 of which were included.

      This research was funded by Nanyang Technological University, Internal Funding, Start-Up Grant, College of Engineering.

What the researchers found

      Review authors grouped the causes of panic buying into four main categories: 1) perceptions, 2) socio-psychological factors, 3) fear of the unknown, and 4) coping behaviours.

      The category that received the most research attention was perceptions and assessment of the crisis. These studies saw panic buying as being triggered by individuals’ beliefs about the threat of an event and product scarcity.

      The second most widely researched category was socio-psychological factors, which are factors that cause the spread of panic buying through social networks. Approximately half of the journal articles fell into this category, perceiving panic buying as a herd behaviour influenced by the behaviour and dynamics of the crowd.

      The third most common category was fear of the unknown, which is influenced by the lack of knowledge surrounding a health crisis. This uncertainty is thought to cause people to ruminate on hypothetical scenarios which generate fear. Thus, panic buying can be triggered by emotions and uncertainty.

      Finally, the least mentioned factor was coping behaviours. Panic buying is an outlet for individuals to regain control over a situation, compensating for associated stressors such as fear of the unknown.

Conclusion

      In summary, the review suggests that panic buying is influenced by 1) individuals’ perception of the threat of the health crisis and scarcity of products; 2) socio-psychological factors, which account for the influence of social networks on an individual; 3) fear of the unknown, which is caused by negative emotions and uncertainty; and 4) coping behaviours, which views panic buying as a means to relieve anxiety and regain control over the crisis.




Glossary

Systematic review
A comprehensive evaluation of the available research evidence on a particular topic.

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