Do you really need more gas or toilet paper? There are better ways to take control in a crisis

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen consumers flock to stores for urgent supplies of items such as toilet paper and pulp.

This phenomenon, called ‘panic buying’, is now happening in Britain – but this time it’s the fuel people are looking for. Continued panic buying will only perpetuate fuel shortages. So what to do to stop it?

Buying panic is a natural reaction to a stressful experience. In particular, it is a response to uncertainty. When people feel like things are uncertain, they tend to focus on something that gives them a sense of certainty and makes them feel like they are in control.

Read more: Coronavirus: Why people panic buying toilet rolls and how to stop it

Of course, most people can’t recruit new truck drivers or mobilize the military to help with the delivery, but they can stock up on fuel. By taking this step, they feel like they are doing something proactive and taking charge of the situation.

COVID-19 has heightened uncertainty about what the future may hold and has increased anxiety for many, which is notable given that we know existing anxiety is a precursor to panic buying . So when people heard that there were concerns about the gasoline supply, it was no surprise that they started lining up with extra jerry cans. People may be more susceptible to this behavior than usual given the pandemic.

Panic buying is an answer to uncertainty.

Interestingly, the act of buying can cause the brain to release small amounts of dopamine, sometimes called “the reward chemical”. This too, at least partially, helps explain the relief people might feel when they finally find a gas station that still has fuel.

The herd mentality and the media

Humans are social creatures and as such we are often influenced by what other people do. We observe the choices that others make and deduce why they behave the way they do. We tend to assume that the majority have a better assessment of what is going on and that panic buying is the right choice for behavior.

The media can play a central role in preventing panic buying, as it tends to steer public perceptions of what people are doing in general. The continued exposure to images and reports of long lines at gas pumps will see people perceive that “everyone is doing it”, potentially encouraging them to copy this behavior. If possible, it is best to avoid this type of coverage.

Read more: The panic buying game theory – and how to reduce it

Authorities must be clear

Accurate and thoughtful communication is essential to allay concerns and therefore deter people from panicking buying. In this case, the public needs to be reassured that there will be no shortage of gasoline, as well as to be informed of the solutions, but it must be convincing. For example, announcing that 5,000 heavy truck drivers will be able to obtain temporary work visas without specifying how they will be recruited may not be considered entirely credible.

The way language is used can also affect how people perceive a situation. It is encouraging to see reports that the government has advised councils not to use the terms “panic” or “panic buy” in this discussion. Indeed, the widespread use of the word “panic” means that we perceive others as panicked. And in rethinking the principles of herd behavior, we tend to assume that other people know what they’re doing – and we become more likely to do the same.

It is therefore important that the government, local authorities and the media pay attention to the language they use during this time.

Gasoline bowsers, one of which displays a sign
Reflective messages from the authorities are an important way to address this problem.
Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA

Things you can do

If you are in the UK and currently affected by the crisis, ask yourself if you really need to buy gasoline. If you decide you don’t really need it – maybe you can leave your car at home and take public transport – even this basic thought process is a way to take charge and reduce levels. anxiety.

If you’re concerned that you might not be able to drive your car, it’s a good idea to come up with a Plan B. What would you do specifically if you found yourself with an empty tank? Could you perhaps travel to work with a neighbor who still has gasoline in his car? Check the bus and train routes and travel times to see if this can be a solution.

Having a specific plan will make you feel like you’re in control – albeit in a different way – and it might make you feel less inclined to seek out emergency gas.

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