The psychology behind panic buying and what to do instead

Updated: Mar 10

I’m sitting here next to a stack of toilet paper – not because I’ve been “panic buying” but because my husband always seems to notice when there’s a voucher offer for a stack of 52 – and, well, we’ll always need them right!?

But I’m not the only one with such a haul. ...So, what is going on?

The Coronavirus Outbreak, 2019-2020

Yes, people are coming down with a flu-like virus, and sadly, as with flu, unfortunately it is too much for some with underlying health problems – and that’s tragic because there are kinder ways to go. But how do hoards of toilet paper help?

A practical step is a "crisis pack":

This would include:

- Prescription medicines

- Toilettries

- A change of clothing

- Credit and payment cards

- Baby/Child/Pet items

- First aid

- A blanket/torch/drinking water

- Canned and dry food

- Phone charger

…actually not that much different from going camping for a week perhaps, and many people started putting snacks along with a blanket and some water when we had the heavy snowfalls. That’s sensible. That’s rational. That’s preparation.

So why are we hoarding?

Hoarding rolls of toilet paper and soap – is that really even (as one article suggested) “The natural response of a rational person who faces future uncertainty and seeks to guarantee their family’s survival?” What about stealing hand sanitizing gel from hospitals – taking it from the people who actually need it right here and now? Or trying to sell travel size one on ebay for £20 when it should cost about £1.50? I guess that’s how demand and supply works.

But is that really how all humans work? Aren’t most of us actually more altruistic?

So if we aren’t being selfish or profiteering, the concept of “panic buying” may simply be due to the following:

1. A sense of control. It may bring a feeling of being more “in control” of a situation that is constantly changing. We see images of deserted streets, so we feel reluctant to go out – in some cases, social distance may be appropriate, and if we do happen to fall ill. We may need to remain isolated for 14 days. Knowing you have “stuff” can bring a sense of calm.

2. Fear of missing out. It’s a common marketing ploy – get it before it’s gone – and when we see empty shelves we may think – we don’t want to miss out on that commodity – it’s a bit like a run on the bank. The herd instinct turns us into followers…and if we can’t get something from one shop, we buy it from another causing that source to run out, and that unnecessary demand in turn causes others to follow suit.

3. Underlying altruism? Perhaps we are stocking up in order to help? We are going to share our fortune? Maybe we do have a number of people to care for in which case we are seeing to their needs…but our potential good deed has the same effect of causing fear because of the drop in availability of an item.

Fear has played a large part in some of the responses to the virus – the avoidance of “corona beer”, the racism that has been experienced is all part of our emotional response being too strong for our rational thought to dampen…and it’s not always helped by media hype and sensationalist reporting.

Instead of panic buying - try this:

1. Educate ourselves. Find out the facts. Yes there are many cases diagnosed, and sadly a number of deaths, but how many have recovered? A website called: ncov2019 (run and maintained by fact-checking teenagers) simply has these statistics from reliable sources such as the World Health Organisation.

2. Build your crisis pack without over-stocking

3. Follow general hygienic and social etiquette rules – wash your hands with soap and water regularly and if you are ill, distance yourself, cough into your elbow or a tissues throw it away – and still wash your hands.

4. Remember that we role model behaviour to those who look up to us – especially our children.

5. Organisations could have some idea of procedure should government measures step up – who needs to be in, who can work from home – do you have such risk outlines in place? Perhaps a flood or fire plan could be adapted? Have a plan, but remain flexible in execution.

…and perhaps we can also consider donating any excess dry food, cans, toilet roll and soaps to the local food banks.

Audrey is a psychologist, author and speaker. Follw her @draudreyt (Twitter and Instagram) or visit


©2019 by Resilient Health: Wellness before the point of crisis.