Professor Hossain spoke to The Public’s Radio reporter Alex Nunes about a new study he’s launched with backing from the National Science Foundation.



NUNES: Why do you think panic buying is worth studying? 

HOSSAIN: When panic buying happens it creates a number of problems. Like essential items, they get stocked out, the price level goes up. And for the panic buyer, it has an impact that it creates inventory management problems; it creates credit issues because they are buying too much of some items, and that shopping is unplanned. And given the current situation—it is ongoing, the pandemic-like situation—it gives us an opportunity to understand the psychological roots of this phenomena while this is happening. 

NUNES: What's the psychology behind panic buying? 

HOSSAIN: There are several factors that might be in play, and that's what I'm studying in my research. And there are some common psychological factors that play a role across all natural disaster-like situations. People's level of anxiety increases, and that triggers panic buying or excessive stockpiling. People's level of felt uncertainty increases, and people also feel a lack of control in their life. A lot of us are habituated to lead a very routine, structured, disciplined life. And all of a sudden, when the shock comes in, I'm interested in knowing what people who are habituated to live a very routine and disciplined life, how they deal with the shock and uncertainties. And also the perception that everybody else might be doing the same [thing], and if I don't rush out to the store now, I might regret it later. So these kinds of psychological tendencies would play a role as well. 

NUNES: Buying in bulk can be proper preparation. When does it tip into being irrational and being bad panic buying?

HOSSAIN: Generally speaking at the broader level, if you are buying a significantly higher quantity of items than what you typically buy, that is indicative of panic buying. In my view, stockpiling to some extent, given that this is a very uncertain situation and we don't know what's going to happen in the future, that is not irrational. That is actually natural human responses. But it becomes a problem when a certain number of individuals are doing it to a very excessive amount, and that creates an issue, I believe. And interestingly, I'm also interested in looking into individuals who are not bothered at all or were not affected by the situation. 

NUNES: How are you modeling your study? How are you going to measure and evaluate panic buying? 

HOSSAIN: So, in my study, I'm measuring and evaluating panic buying in different ways. So one way to measure is that I have created a list of household necessities and grocery items—it is an exhaustive list— and I am assessing whether people have bought these items to a quantity or volume that is what they typically buy, or whether they have bought this item to a very excessive amount or significantly higher volume than what they typically buy. That is one way to do it. And I'm also assessing their future. Going forward, do they plan to stockpile these items to an amount that is significantly higher than they typically buy?

NUNES: Do you have a hypothesis going into this study? 

HOSSAIN: The main purpose of the study is to find the psychological roots of it. And there are certain psychological roots I believe have played key roles—that people who felt high levels of anxiety engaged in more excessive stockpiling. People who are avoidant of uncertain situations more than others, in my expectations or predictions, they are more likely to engage in panic buying than others. People who have a very strong desire for control of their life, they are more likely to engage in excessive stockpiling than others. And I believe that people who view their world as very structured, and they have a preference for structure in their surroundings, they might be reacting more strongly.

NUNES: So the aim of the study is to find out what you can about panic buying so you can use that information to help mitigate the problem in the future. How do you do that?

HOSSAIN: Right. So, in our research, we frequently use “framing of communication.” So framing is a phenomena. How you frame your communication—that impacts people's psychology. It impacts people's mindset. If we know the psychological root of the problem, we can frame the communication in a way that can actually minimize the root of that psychological trigger. Say even a slogan like, “Wash your hands,” the things that we're receiving on a day-to-day basis, that this is what we need to do given the current situation. But along with that message, you can introduce other taglines like, “You are not losing control of your life; you are in control of your life” or “Don't panic,” things like that. It will minimize my psychological trigger point of engaging in excessive stockpiling. That's what I believe in.

NUNES: Mehdi Hossain, professor of marketing at the University of Rhode Island, thanks very much for speaking with me. 

HOSSAIN: Thank you for speaking with me, and stay safe and stay well.

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org.