Where all think alike, no one thinks very much. Walter Lippmann
Coffee, Q-tips, 1 banana, dates, cranberries, limescale tablets for the washing machine, peanuts for my bird feed and toilet paper. These were the items on my shopping list. I genuinely needed toilet paper. I have been caught up in the frenzy of the coronavirus with cancelations of appointments, workshops and business trips. I refuse, however, to get caught up in the buying hysteria – because it’s beyond the panic level now. I must admit though, that for a few seconds I did catch myself wondering, should I be doing what others are doing? As I was looking at the empty shelves in both Tesco and Morrison’s I WAS tempted for a moment and entertained the thought of buying more toilet paper, paracetamol and Dettol spray. And I live a village with just under 5,000 people so I can’t imagine what the supermarkets look like in Manchester or other large cities.
But why are we doing this? Why are we exhibiting this seemingly irrational behaviour? Here are some thoughts from my favourite
Cause of Death – I don’t know whether covid19 will kill you or not, but UNCERTAINTY might
In times of crises and extreme uncertainty we go into survival mode and our cognitive functions get limited to a great extent (this is the oversimplified version of what happens to our brains). So, when a situation is unclear or ambiguous like it is now, we are most likely to look to other and accept the actions of other people as correct and follow their lead. So, this obviously will have a domino effect on aspects like panic-buying. If others are buying, I should probably follow because they seem to know something I don’t know.
Monkey Me, Monkey Do – closely related with the above principle is the principle of SIMILARITY. When we feel uncertain, we are more likely to look at others’ actions and decide how we should act.
Scarcity Principle – a common principle used in retail. “Only a few left” will make you buy more than you would buy, if you were faced with a full shelf of let’s say toilet paper in this case.
Of course, the question arises why toilet paper specifically? I can’t answer that. I am guessing because it’s linked to one of our most basic human needs, it’s bulky and generally stockpiling gives us a (false) sense of control, i.e. we are doing something, taking action.
Another plausible explanation is provided by clinical psychologist Steven Taylor who states that when people are told something dangerous is coming, but all you need to do is wash your hands, the action doesn’t seem proportionate to the threat, so what we would then tend to think is that “Special danger needs special precautions.”
Also, because we are meaning-making creatures, in other words we are hardwired to make connections and explain everything and anything, there will be a rise of various conspiracy theories. And maybe yes covid19 is another lab attempt because we are too many on this planet, but that’s another subject. The fact is that we will be more likely to BELIEVE any of those theories in our efforts to make sense of the world.
The Mind has one and only mandate. To keep us safe. And it does so in very weird and paradoxical ways and that’s why our Brains are full of biases, traps, that all are, however, serving a ‘positive’ purpose and outcome.