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The science of buying

Hours before the second lockdown, an unusually high number of vehicles took to Gisborne’s roads as people flocked to the supermarkets. Psychology professor Jamin Halberstadt explains the human thinking behind this behaviour, and if the word “panic” should even be attached to it. Avneesh Vincent reports . . .

"I don’t think running out of stuff is panic buying per se,” says Professor Jamin Halberstadt.

Rather, “it’s a result of people thinking rationally and following what other people are buying or mispredicting how much is left,” he said,via a Zoom call from his home in Dunedin.

He heads the department of psychology at the University of Otago and has over 20 years of research experience.

He said while it was difficult to say if what people observed was actually a “behaviour of buying”, there were some social theories that could explain such behaviour.

“It’s like a social dilemma, commonly known as the Tragedy of the Commons. It’s like everybody acts rationally but the end outcome is something not desirable and is unintentional. Like nobody wants the earth to be uninhabitable either but that’s happening.

“People are more likely trying to be self-aware or predict what other people may be doing,” he said.

The theory was first coined by scientist Garett Hardin in 1958 to describe a situation where individuals begin to act for their own self-interests, ignoring how their actions could affect other people. The result of such a thought process is called “unintentional tragedy”.

Prof Halberstadt says the theory relates to the creation of the unfortunate situation like “over-buying” that is not intentionally done but as a result of “rational calculations”.

When people try to anticipate other people’s behaviour they could possibly end up doing the same thing, like coming to the supermarket at the same time to buy things.

Placing himself in the role of a consumer he explains the practical implications of the social theory by giving an example.

“Maybe I should also get milk, not because I really think there is a shortage but because other people think that there is going to be a shortage. I know what they are going to do and so if I don’t get on board then maybe I won’t be able to get that milk tomorrow.

“It’s like an unintended consequence of people kind of acting logically in a way but ending up in a situation where it was nobody’s first choice at all,” he said.

Such a situation could be solved with better coordination.

Prof Halberstadt explains that the unplanned scenario of “shortage of items” could be aligned with a process called “self-fulfilling prophesy”.

He said that a person could think that there was a shortage of certain items based on other people buying it although there was no shortage in the first place. But when everyone thinks the same way and buys those items then the shortage could become a reality.

Uncertainty and need for control

Supermarket chain Countdown was contacted about any shortage or supply issues due to increased demand and intensive buying. Spokesperson Kiri Hannifin said there might be some gaps on shelves as the company’s supply chain continued to deal with the heavy demand from customers.

But over the past couple of weeks, “there was always enough food and groceries to go around as long as people did not buy more than they needed”.

Prof Halberstadt said the element of uncertainty played a big role in what he describes as “buying frenzy” during the first nationwide lockdown, when people were unsure how long it would last.

The other element that could be used to describe the high demand and buying in excess was the phenomenon that everyone was in the supermarket buying things.

“When a person goes to the supermarket and sees a lot of people buying stuff, they think that there must be a reason to do it. And since everybody is making the same kind of calculation then you get everybody shopping at the same time,” he said.

People in Gisborne who were moving in and around supermarkets or out doing recreational activities were approached by this reporter to get some “on-field perspective”, while following all the social distancing rules as Tairawhiti was still in Level 4.

When asked about the place they would most likely visit during any crisis, all agreed that they would place “supermarket” in their top two with family being the other option.

They were also asked their reasoning as well as their buying process, and their opinion on “limits on buying” notices that were occasionally put out in the supermarkets to combat the increased demands.

Petina Baker said her first thought about the place to visit was the supermarket.

She said it was difficult to explain why she chose it as she “honestly” does not like to frequent the market but when she goes shopping she usually keeps a list of items ready.

“For my emergency kit though I would have tinned food and water.”

She thought buying limits were fine for her and her partner, but she has friends who found them difficult, especially if they had large families.

A friend had said the limits meant she could not buy enough in one visit, to keep up with the daily demands of her family. “She’s pretty much at the supermarket every day,” she said.

Another resident Priscilla Li said she would always placed family first, and their needs, followed by the supermarket.

“I have two young kids and they are hungry all the time. They just want food, especially in lockdown, so they can eat all day and that’s why food is critical to our family.

“Fruit, vegetables and snacks — mainly for my kids — is what I like to buy. Although during lockdown I bought things that I normally don’t buy like sweet biscuits and have kept them going,” she said.

Countdown’s Kiri Hannifin said, “With people cooking at home, we’ve been sending plenty of fresh fruit and veges to stores too, including an extra 285 tonnes of potatoes and 105 tonnes of carrots”.

She said there also had been a surge in comfort food, with chips and chocolate being popular this lockdown.

Some of those spoken to for this story viewed limiting stocks as a “sensible” strategy.

But Prof Halberstadt said such a “limiting phenomenon” had an ironic effect similar to the “self-fulfilment prophesy”. Supermarkets putting out notices limiting purchases implied there was a shortage and that created a demand when there wasn’t one.

On-site interviews showed people were stocking up to avoid frequent visits and were aiming to be better prepared this time than during last year’s lockdown.

Most people had similar priorities and ideas of items they should buy, for example, putting the supermarket as one of their top two priorities to visit in a crisis. Choosing frozen items was a common answer, with toilet paper surprisingly not making the list.

But while it proved that most people thought alike and the consequence was an increased buying effect, it still doesn’t quite explain why people like to go and buy or think of going to the supermarket when something like Covid-19 comes along.

Prof Halberstadt said that “buying tendency” this time around was probably more due to a need for “control” than uncertainty.

“ In my opinion, control is something that has some basic motivations which people believe in and I do think a new worldwide pandemic that comes along would be a threat to people’s control.”

Placing himself in the position of a stressed consumer, he says:

“I can see someone who was convinced that we were going down the levels might take this lockdown as a sign that it may remain for many weeks. They are sort of jolted into this realisation that they cannot reconcile — that this is not a part of their normal life anymore. That life is not going back to the way it was before and might prompt them to change their behaviour in some way or the other.”

He said there was a preconceived “illusion of stability” of the world that people generally might believe.

“So anything that threatens their sense of the world I guess is stressful…. so new things that happen are threatening and stressful.” he says.

However, he did not leave out the possibility of “panic” as an effect.

“I can imagine it to be a side effect even though you are going in a rational way. Like even though you don’t go to the supermarket panicked, but when you see everybody else stressed and grabbing food, you think there is something to panic about.”

He said that while people might get stressed out and experience “panic” as a side effect he was sceptical about “panic buying” due to “panic”.

“It’s not that supermarkets are running out but they may not be able to stock up the shelves when you need them to.

“So if you see people behaving in this way there is a pressure to conform to the way things are happening around you.”

IRONY: Professor Jamin Halberstadt sees so-called panic buying as self-fulfilling behaviour. Picture supplied
IRONY: Professor Jamin Halberstadt sees so-called panic buying as self-fulfilling behaviour. Picture supplied