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Why do we panic buy? And how can we use this knowledge to improve communications and prevent panic buying?

by Ruth Dale

Understanding the science behind why we panic buy means we can craft better, more impactful communications.

Behavioural science tells us we all have behavioural biases, rules of thumb or heuristics that are automatic and implicit. We cannot change them, they are part of us; but marketing and communications influence and triggers them every day. The following three biases can help us to understand why we panic buy:

  • Scarcity – when you value something more when there is less of it

  • Loss Aversion – fear of loss

  • Social norms/negative social proof – your teenage years.

Panic buying is often triggered by a scarcity message. For example a recent Daily Mail headline such as…

“Tesco boss warns of panic buying in run to Christmas…” (with accompanying pictures of empty shelves.)

…can trigger a rush of behaviours that can easily tip into what is perceived as a new social norm, which further exacerbates the situation. Social media and online news amplifies fast and wide, far and you may start thinking…“what do they know that I don’t?” “Everyone’s doing it so there must be a need?”

On top of which, when leaders do respond it is most likely to be in the form of asking you to stop doing what you are doing. This is negative social proof. It most likely didn’t work as a child and it doesn’t work as an adult either. Simply telling people what not to do is actually another trigger toward the unwanted behaviour.

Together they are a cocktail of emotional and psychological responses that to be honest marketing has been taking advantage of for years. Consider how many different types of marketing make use of Limited Editions (scarcity), it’s as far and wide as £1 chocolate bars to £100k fashion garments. Remember the NEXT sale in its glory days? Peoples fear of losing a bargain (loss aversion) would result in them queuing in the early hours of the morning.

Take a look at any e-commerce store and you will often see just how many people are looking at the same product as you – but oh no – there are only a few left at that price. It is pretty endless when you start noticing, and it’s not an accident.

These tactics are intentionally trying to motivate you to take action because one of the other core behavioural science theories is that people are inherently lazy and will put off till tomorrow what they could do today. Have you ever said you will do something, even something that you really wanted to do, but still forgotten?

So how to ensure your communications during a panic buying crisis does not unintentionally exacerbate the situation?

The key is to focus on what you want people to do. In Behaviour Change Marketing Bootcamp we focus on the shift from the problem to the positive action. It’s not always easy, but it’s essential if you want to drive change.  To do this follow these two tips:

Tip one: Don’t tell people what not to do!

This is not as easy as it sounds. Any parent knows this. We are very guilty of sitting in the problem in the public sector. I know when I was in the NHS so often our announcements would inform everyone how many people were missing their appointments. Oh yes – giving the green light for others. Inadvertently of course and I wish I had known then what I know now.

Tip two: Don’t expect people to be rational and don’t ignore their fears.

One of the underpinning theories in behavioural science is that people are not rational. So don’t expect them to suddenly take rational action whilst in the midst of a wave of hysteria.

Instead acknowledge their fears and start to shift the social norm back to the desired behaviour. Move beyond the fear and bring the narrative and your audience with you.

Hope that helps.

Ruth Dale is Founder, Behaviour Change Marketing Bootcamp. You can say hello on Twitter at @ruth_dale

Training for non-profit and public sector communicators in behavioural science and social marketing. Simply what I wish I had had when working in the NHS and Government.

Behavior Change Marketing Bootcamp (

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Image via US National Archives

Original source – comms2point0

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