Hoarding behavior can be observed in many species of the animal kingdom. For example, squirrels stash away acorns and other foods foraged from their environment. Crows are known to collect shiny objects, such as bottle caps, candy wrappers and other bits of junk they find.
Humans are no different. Hoarding is defined as a mental illness by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. It results from a combination of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), OCPD (Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
But in times of extreme stress, such as when a hurricane happens or is even predicted to happen, even people without any of the mental conditions listed above can be triggered to hoard. “Panic buying” is akin to hoarding. That latter term became a regular part of our daily lexicon as the COVID-19 pandemic struck the nation in early 2020.
We’re all familiar now with the rush millions of people made on shopping venues to buy up every roll of toilet paper on the shelves. Early in the pandemic cycle, people also hoarded storable goods. In addition to toilet paper, a study of grocery store scanner data showed that canned meats, eggs, children’s medicine, shampoo, paper towels, pasta, beans, bread and rice were among the top panic-purchased items.
Psychologists have been studying the spate of panic buying at the advent of the COVID crisis with interest and are offering explanations for this behavior. One psychologist called it a “behavioral response to a perception of future scarcity.” Another factor is “herd mentality.” It’s common for large groups of people to copycat behaviors if they see a lot of other people doing the same thing.
At the root of panic buying are the age-old motivations that have driven mankind since the beginning of time — fear and anxiety driven by uncertainty. The COVID pandemic is a classic example of a universal, catastrophic event that has produced a tremendous amount of uncertainty. People respond to that by taking actions that are more extreme than they are motivated to do in normal times.
Keep in mind that storing up on food to survive the long winter months is entirely normal behavior because that is how our species has survived the lean times for millennia. However, it’s the combination of this logical purpose with the fear and anxiety of uncertainty that produces the abnormal behavior of panic buying.