Report: a look at the psychology of panic-buying and the neighbourly solidarity we saw during the snowy weather
If you followed the news coverage of the last few days, you might be forgiven for thinking that the general public was operating on a kind of Jekyll and Hyde protocol, digging their neighbours out of snow drifts and then fighting those same neighbours for a loaf of bread in the local shop.
Ian Robertson, Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, was on RTÉ Radio One's Today with Sean O’Rourke show to offer an insight into the psychology of panic-buying and the neighbourly solidarity we saw in the last week.
Ian told Sean that when people are "out of their routine" and taking in a pretty "saturated" news cycle, they can overestimate the risk associated with a particular event.
"There’s something in psychology, it’s a cognitive bias called the ‘availability heuristic’, which means that if something comes easily to mind, then you overestimate the likelihood of that happening…you’re bombarded with stories to do with shortages, for instance, there may be only one shortage in one store in the country but because that comes easily to mind, you think it’s going to be much more common. You think it’s happening everywhere."
In this case, Ian said, people compensated for this by stocking up on groceries and other items, particularly when we saw others around us doing the same. But why bread in particular?
"Sliced white bread is a classic comfort food…So, here we are, at home, besieged at home, you know, feeling this sense of ‘Oh my goodness, the elements are going to kill us’ and so there’s a real tendency for us to want, you know, white toasted bread and marmalade for our breakfast. The white pan is a kind of symbol of safety and comfort."
However, there can be a benefit to a perceived "common threat", Ian explained.
"In wartime, rates of anxiety, depression and mental illness go down significantly. Why? Because there’s a common threat. A common threat binds people together and when people feel bound together, they feel less anxious. They feel happier. And if they do things for each other, we know that altruism, doing good things for each other, is a great anti-depressant."
From RTÉ Radio One's Today With Sean O'Rourke show, Ian Robertson on how we're hugely influenced by what other people around us are doing