Sun. Jan 23rd, 2022

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Chances are, if you venture into a supermarket anywhere in the U.S. right now, you won’t find too many items lining the shelves. However, there’s one thing for certain that you’re not going to find: toilet paper.

In light of the coronavirus spreading across the country, panic buying has more than begun; in fact, it’s gotten out of hand. To be specific, panic buying is a “situation in which many people suddenly buy as much food, fuel, etc. as they can because they are worried about something bad that may happen.” 

Before, the COVID-19 virus was a scare; but with the news of rising cases in the U.S., alarmed Americans have begun to stockpile supplies in an apocalyptic fashion. To try and prevent shortages, resales and price gouging, many stores have limited the number of products—such as hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, toilet paper, paper towels and household cleaning products—that an individual customer can buy. 

American shoppers are buying in bulk and in a panic—but we really don’t need to buy thousands of dollars worth of toilet paper or 14 different kinds of canned goods. It needs to be remembered that by participating in panic buying, we’re putting vulnerable populations at an even higher risk amid this pandemic. 

When faced with high stress or threats, such as a highly contagious virus, a “fight or flight” response is hardwired into us. According to psychologists, retail therapy and panic buying are done in order to manage our emotional state. Paul Marsden, a consumer psychologist at the University of the Arts London, said that people panic-buy in order to play into our three fundamental psychological needs: a need for control, a need for relatedness and a need for competence.

Toilet paper has become an “icon” of mass panic, but there’s no evidence that the U.S. is in any danger of facing a nationwide food or supply shortage. The latest Agriculture Department data shows record-high stocks of food, and the food industry itself is urging consumers in the U.S. to remain calm. The problem isn’t in supplies, but rather, stocking the shelves in a timely manner.

However, here’s a bright light amidst the panic zone: research done by psychologists at the   University of Freiburg in Germany suggests that acute stress, lack of control or feelings of vulnerability might actually lead to more cooperative, positive and pro-social behavior. In other words, karma.

Act in a way that you want others to act, and treat in the way you wish to be treated; karma explains these pro-social behaviors. Researchers at the University of Chicago studied how people behave when faced with outcomes beyond their personal control. Their findings supported the idea of “karmic investment;” in other words, the desire for an outcome that people have little control over leads to action. 

It suggests that disaster might bring out the best in us: increased donations of time and money, people sharing food and groceries, more hospitality and empathy awareness, optimism after acting in a pro-social manner.

Developing social connections in this time of crisis might be necessary for our quarantined survival—people look to each other for support in times of disaster. So, stop hogging the toilet paper, and instead, shop for an elderly neighbor, look online for community help sites and do what you can. It’s natural to feel uneasy right now, but we need to think through our panic buying to those who will be affected; the way to combat this is through collective and altruistic movements, even if it’s something as seemingly small as limiting your thirteen rolls of toilet paper to 3.


Emma Bickerstaffe is a third-year English major with minors in journalism and anthropology.


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