Hand sanitizers and toilet paper were the first to fly off store shelves. And now we’ve reached what Walmart CEO Doug McMillan calls the hair color phase of panic buying.

It’s been more than two months since the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a grinding halt, but the uncertainty is nowhere close to ending.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi first announced the three-week lockdown in India, people immediately rushed out and bought whatever they could lay their hands on: rice and dal, fruits and vegetables, chips and cookies, meat and mithai.

Hundreds queued up outside pharmacies or shopped online for masks, gloves, and hand sanitizers.

It wasn’t just India.

With lockdown looming, people across the world shopped like there was no tomorrow. In the first few weeks, they bought toilet paper and groceries by trolley loads.

As the virus spread further and the lockdown was extended, people moved from shopping for essentials to items like creams and shampoos. They also bought bread makers and cake mixes, the lockdown having brought out the inner baker in thousands across the world.

Now, with salons shut but virtual offices opening up on Zoom, beard trimmers and hair dyes are flying off the shelves.

It’s not as if people need all these things; they are just panic buying. 

So why are people on a shopping frenzy despite assurances from the government that essential supplies will not dry up? What is the psychology behind panic buying?

Experts say uncertainty and social isolation push us to buy irrationally. They say it has been a way of coping with the fear and uncertainty in a pandemic since the Spanish flu in 1918.  

“When you’re seeing extreme responses, it’s because people feel like their survival is threatened and they need to do something to feel like they’re in control,” National Geographic quoted American epidemiologist Karestan Koenen as saying. Koenen is a professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The reason for panic lies in our brain or, more specifically, a part of the brain called the amygdala which controls emotions like fear and anxiety. 

The uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic triggers an “amygdala hijack”, a term first used by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.  

What does amygdala hijacking mean? There’s a complicated scientific explanation for it but, in simple words, it means seriously over-reacting to a situation. 

Any sign of distress and your amygdala goes into overdrive. Pandemics, riots, and natural disasters like floods and hurricanes are classic examples that trigger our anxieties and fears. And push us to panic buy.

The Kargil conflict in 1999 and the Y2K crisis at the turn of the century sent people rushing to supermarkets to squirrel away food and other essentials.

More than 20 years later, human psychology remains the same. You peep into your refrigerator and see a crisper full of veggies and a freezer packed to the rafters with meat and bread, but you still think: “Oh my god, it isn’t enough.”

Social media doesn’t help either. Images of empty shelves only increase your fear and trigger a perception of scarcity. You see other people buying madly and your herd mentality kicks in: You too rush to your neighborhood market and grab whatever is available.

But it isn’t just social media. India is under lockdown until 3rd May. The question that many are asking now: Will supplies run out soon because of the disruption in manufacturing and supply chains? 

We’ve all seen images of empty shelves aisle after aisle in supermarkets all the way from America to Australia. 

Will India go the same way? Nobody knows. The important thing to remember is this: We’re all in this together. 

So stay calm. Harappa’s Executing Solutions course says the one way to protect yourself from the effects of an amygdala hijack is to simply pause and understand the crisis. Seeing the amygdala hijacking for what it is will give you the necessary space and perspective for your faculties of reason to kick in.

This isn’t easy, of course, but it’s possible. So, just stop, take a deep breath, and think before you load up your trolley next time.


Enroll now for the Reasoning Logically course at Harappa Education. Click here to visit Harappa's Online Courses

Sugita Katyal is an Associate Director with the Curriculum team at Harappa Education.

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