The psychology of bulk buying explained

The reason we are panic buying due to the imminent threat of COVID-19 is because the brain’s survival mode overrides any rational decision making, says Dr Ali Fenwick

In this article, I want to talk to you about the psychology behind panic buying. You have probably seen people in supermarkets buying in bulk, or maybe you’ve seen photos and videos of empty shelves on social media. People are rushing to the stores buying more food than they actually need to have, or going out and buying products that are not essential to survive, such as toilet paper of all things.

So I want to explain some of the key psychological reasons behind why people are panic buying so that you can make more sense behind the buying frenzy and help make better choices for yourself.

There are four major reasons why we bulk buy:

1 Survival mode

The core reason behind this behaviour is us going into ‘survival mode’. Many people are asking themselves ‘how will this situation further evolve?’ and ‘when will this be over?’.

The situation around COVID-19, can cause a lot of uncertainty. When we are put in an uncertain situation or a situation which is perceived as threatening, our more primitive part of the brain takes over and we fall back into survival mode. Once our survival mode kicks in, emotions mainly drive behaviour and panic sets in. This also means that our brain can easily distort rational decision-making, which in case of grocery shopping leads to bulk buying. We are literally buying to ‘survive’.

Although the government promises there will be no disruption to food supply, we don’t know this for sure as most of us have not been in a similar situation before. We don’t know if these promises will be kept. As a result, we buy more food than we normally would, rather than waiting to see if there actually will be enough food once things lockdown.

2 The scarcity effect

The second reason behind bulk-buying is due to something called the ‘scarcity effect’. When products become scarce, people perceive them as more valuable. We are more willing to go out and buy, and even pay more, for scare products. Think of the current demand for N95 masks and hand sanitisers.

Due to the shortage in supply, people are now willing to pay astronomical prices to get hold of them. The scarcity effect if one of the most power drivers of buying behaviours, and can push people to buy even products that they might not actually need.

This explains why we buy more food than we need to have, or why so many people are currently on the run for toilet paper, which is actually not necessary in fighting COVID-19.

3 Herd behaviour

The third reason why people are bulk buying, and which also explains the situation with the toilet paper, is called ‘herd behaviour’. Although you might not bulk buy yourself, the fact other people around you are, creates an immediate urge for you to do the same. In uncertain situations, we tend to follow what other people do or say, especially people similar like us. So, if your friend, family member, or colleague is bulk buying you feel you should do the same.

Social media plays a huge impact on stimulating herd behaviour. Our online social networks consist of people we know, are related to, we like and admire. What these people say or do (and the content they share), heavily effects our individual beliefs and behaviours. If we see a ‘connection’ bulk buy or share pictures of empty shelves in a supermarket, you will be more likely to start doing the same.

4 Sense of control

The final reason why people bulk buy is due to us wanting to exert a sense of control over our environment. The global pandemic is a cause for a lot of uncertainty in the world and has resulted in many countries closing their borders and imposing self-isolation. This can lead make us feel we are losing control. When we start to feel that we are losing control, anxiety creeps in and we start to feel unsafe. It is natural for most of us to find ways to regain control over our lives, and being able to buy things, provides us with a perceived sense of control over our surroundings. If there is not much else we can do, then buying more can help us feel more in control and therefore safer. This is another reason why people bulk buy

Takeaways from the science

In summary, bulk buying is caused by various psychological and environmental factors which throw rational-thinking out of the window. When in survival mode, we let mainly our emotions drive decisions and are more susceptible to social influences. So, we will rush out and buy more because we believe others are doing the same.

I’m pretty sure these reasons are informative, but I am also aware that for a lot of people their survival mode has already kicked in and you will still go and buy more products than you need. To help you put the brakes on and reconsider your options, think of this analogy:

If 100 soldiers need weapons to fight the enemy and 1 person hordes all weapons for him or herself, then 99 people will be left without protection. There is no way you can stop the enemy with one person protected. In our situation, COVID-19 is the enemy, and if everyone has enough food, sanitisers, masks, …and toilet paper, then everyone can do something about the virus. Buy enough to survive and allow others to do the same.

Dr Ali Fenwick is an expert in human behaviour at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in Breukelen, the Netherlands. He has an MBA from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) and a PhD in Organisational Psychology from Nyenrode Business Universiteit.

As a behavioural scientist, he specialises in work attitudes and behaviours investigating the psychological mechanisms underlying employee performance and well-being. Topics he frequently investigates, lectures and speaks about are employee engagement, organisational commitment, leadership, consumer psychology, behavioural economics, and innovation.

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