Posted on April 09, 2020

The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has imposed a global crisis upon humankind; a pandemic that has now accelerated beyond 200 countries, infected more than 1.4 million people and killed over 80,000 people worldwide.

Most countries have imposed weeks of full or partial lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19. During this uncertain situation, the world has witnessed people losing their rationality, which has led to panic-buying items such as hand sanitizers and toilet paper as well as stocking up on groceries to such an extent that many store shelves have been left empty. Such panic buying, with no apparent consideration for others, may appear selfish to those who have been left unable to buy essential items, but human behavior depends on various psychological and environmental cues.

One of the psychological reasons to explain such actions is the behavioral switch from the normal, reasoned response to a survival response. Large uncertainty in a novel situation like COVID-19 might have put people in a survival response mode, which in individuals without military or crisis training suppresses rational decision-making and forces people to think more about themselves and their dependents.

Panic buying actually brings peace of mind to these people. Another reason for panic buying is the false perception of a shortage of items created either by witnessing crowd shopping or seeing empty shelves, which can make us believe that certain items are more important and worth buying. Biologically, negative emotions like stress, anxiety, and fear are considered to be survival-response emotions. Survival response emotions convey a risk signal to the brain which in return favors those behaviors that may reduce those risks. Neurologically, emotions are perceived at the amygdala - a set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe - and are further processed at higher brain centers like the frontal cortex, which promotes rational thinking before making a decision.

However, in the panic state, the pathway to the frontal cortex gets bypassed and the amygdala mediated pathway forces people to make a quick decision without thinking rationally. In simpler words, panic buying is a case of an emotion-driven decision which is susceptible to social cues. People continue to panic-buy in many countries despite assurances from their respective governments that supply will not be disrupted. Item hoarding behavior has been noticed more in countries that are not self-sufficient in meeting grocery demands.

This behavior could also be related to people’s trust in a timely supply of items. In countries like Qatar, panic buying or hoarding has not been observed despite the continuing partial lockdown. Another reason that might have contributed to irresponsible and selfish human behavior is media coverage, social group discussions, and propagation of unverified claims, while sudden measures taken by the government may also be responsible for creating panic. When more people see, read, and notice this, it increases the chances of heightened anxiety and fear in people.

Despite multiple stern warnings from health experts against socializing, some people – particularly the young in some countries – have defied social distancing orders and have shown irresponsible behavior by continuing to socialize, go for picnics, or maybe the gym or the beach. Initial media reports suggesting that the young are not vulnerable to COVID-19 infection could have been one of the reasons that young people maintained their normal routine without realizing they were risking the lives of their loved ones such as their parents or grandparents. The optimism-bias that ‘it won’t happen to me’, resistance to change their habits, and even the view that ‘taking the risk is cool’ could also have been potential reasons to explain such behavior.

This is an unprecedented time for all of us and my advice is to please try not to let a state of panic or anxiety take over your rational decision-making and thought processes in situations like COVID-19. Unless we have our young people cooperating, we will have a very high price to pay. The crisis will pass, humankind will survive, but our actions and decisions will leave their footprint on our economy, politics, and culture.

Dr. Mohammad Farhan is an  Assistant Professor at the College of Health and Life Sciences at Hamad Bin Khalifa University. This article is submitted on behalf of the author by the HBKU Communications Directorate. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the University’s official stance.