Updated: Jul 23, 2020
Q&A with The Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS) and HOPE CEO, Darlene Davis:
Q. There are certain items that people are panic-buying that is keeping store shelves empty. This includes toilet paper, hand sanitizer, flour and yeast, cleaning supplies, canned food, pasta, spray bottles, diapers, and formula. Can you tell me why people are so panicked about purchasing these items and the behavioral science behind their decisions?
A. Yes when people are fearful that their basic needs will not be met they go into crisis mode and begin to behave in ways they might not normally behave. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs says that the longer we are without food, water, warmth, and rest, known as our physiological needs the more we will want for those things maybe even to excess. The fight, flight, or freeze mentality takes over and rationale thinking goes off line. Their brain may say, “do whatever it takes”.
Humans can also become part of the “mob mentality”. According to Kristen Polito in an article on Inpathybulletin.com, “This is where humans adopt behaviors, buy merchandise, and follow trends based on their circle of influence”. The belief may be that everyone else is going to buy up all the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, etc., so I better get it first.
Q. Why do you think people stockpile these things even after authorities tell them they don't need to and that the supply is good?
A. Again it’s based more on what our emotional brain is telling us. We have all been isolated to a degree except maybe to go to the grocery store. Early on we saw other’s buying excessive amounts of toilet paper and we tell ourselves that something bad must be happening or will happen soon so I need to “join the group”. This can make us feel part of something and not so isolated. This behavior is emotionally driven.
Q. Do you think some people hoard more than others and if so, is there a reason why?
A. Some people already have a tendency to stock up or even hoard items. This can be among other factors, due to anxiety, depression, or an obsessive compulsive disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association, hoarding disorder occurs in 2 to 6 percent of the population and are more prevalent in older males age 55 to 94. There’s a sense of need for the particular items and an unwillingness to part with these items. This can isolate the person from others which unfortunately causes more anxiety and depression. It’s a vicious cycle.
Q. Is there a difference between a hoarder who stockpiles junk and items to the point that it disrupts their daily activities and the hoarding people are doing during the COVID-19 pandemic?
A. Hoarding disorder is found in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) and is not necessarily connected to an event although an event that is traumatic could trigger hoarding. I think the majority of the stockpiling we are seeing does not meet the criteria of a hoarding disorder. More so people are fearful that this may go on for a long time or worse yet it will be like this forever. The more they hear bad news the more their fear and anxiety grows.
Q. When do people need to seek therapy if they think the hoarding is out of control?
A. Whenever a behavior affects someone’s daily functioning it would be beneficial to talk with a trained professional such as a therapist. Therapists have the training and skills to help people. Therapists utilize cognitive therapy and other modalities to change people’s way of thinking and therefore improve functioning, increase supports, and build healthy relationships.
Q. The shortage of flour and yeast points to people just wanting to bake because they have nothing else to do. Do you think this is a good way to relieve the stress of lockdown or is it not a good idea to rid the shelves of flour?
A. This is a double edged question. Yes it can bring comfort to people as they find the time to bake. It can be a very mindful activity. The downside is comfort food usually contributes to weight gain or empty calorie intake. This can effect self-esteem and lead to more depression/anxiety and health issues in the future. Moderation is always the key.
Q. Anything else you can think of that you would like to point out about people hoarding/stockpiling goods?
A. During this very difficult time it is important to seek out reliable and factual information but to limit the amount in a given day. Trying to find normalcy in everyday life and find ways to connect with loved ones can help reduce the feelings or isolation and/or fear driven decisions.