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Why are people feeling driven to panic buy? Expert comment

Dr Georg Löfflmann from the Department of Politics and International Studies comments:-

"The mortality rate of COVID-19 is about 3.4%, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), significantly higher than the regular flu, which has a mortality rate of about 1%, but nowhere near devastating diseases such as Ebola (mortality rate of 90%), or the Bubonic Plague, the ‘Black Death’, which ravaged Europe in the 14th century and killed as much as half of the population in medieval England.

"So why do some people panic-buy toilet paper and stock up on pasta and canned tuna?

"The answer has to do with how we process information and make decisions. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman, author of the bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow, has shown that humans are often less rational beings than we like to think.

"Evolution has given us two systems of thought, ‘system 1’, which is fast, instinctive and emotional, and ‘system 2, which is slower, more deliberative and logical. Because of ‘cognitive bias’, embedded in human biology, emotions and intuition can override a rational assessment of objective fact.

"One example of this is ‘confirmation bias’, which leads us to treat facts as further confirmation for what we already believe to be true, and reject information that goes against our worldview. Another one is ‘loss aversion’, which is the preference to avoid losses over making additional gains.

"Critical situations like the corona crisis can force us to re-evaluate taken for granted assumptions, challenge the status quo, and question long-established roles and identities, from challenging the authority of governments to concepts of our own self-identity and way of life.

"While we of course shouldn’t ignore the health risks of the corona virus and take sensible precautions, like regularly washing our hands and avoid touching our face, it is also important to realize that fear and anxiety are linked to our cognitive biases and that others might want to manipulate these emotional triggers in us, for example, right-wing populists who use our fear of the virus to demonize migrants and call for closing borders to refugees fleeing war and oppression.

"At the height of the Great Depression, which threatened the livelihoods of millions, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told Americans that the ‘Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself’. His words of hope and optimism still ring true today and might help us to check our own unconscious bias in response to this latest crisis."

Follow Georg on twitter: @gloefflmann

10 March 2020

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