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Why are people panic buying again? 


IIn Singapore where I am living, new restrictions have been imposed due to a rise in Covid-19 cases. These include a ban on dining out and a reduction in the size of social gatherings. After the announcements, social media was flooded with images of people queueing and stocking supplies from supermarkets. 


This was reminiscent of scenes when Covid-19 first broke out. Then, people were, ostensibly, worried about supplies, and rushed to stock up with an impending lock-down. But surely this doesn’t make any sense now. From previous experience, people must know that supplies are steady in Singapore. While some items might take a day or 2 longer to re-stock, Singaporeans are generally able to get what they need and want. Moreover, supermarkets and eateries will remain open.


||||   How can this be happening again?

  • Why are people queuing up to stockpile for Covid when there is no need to? Are they not afraid of getting infected as they queue?

  • And what explains individual difference? Why are some people more "sensible" than others?


It would be easy to simply pin the answer down to the ugly and irrational side of humanity - that these folks mindlessly and irresponsibly queued and stocked up when there was no need to. But I don't think the answer is quite so simple.


And there is real value in examining why people think and act the way they do because most of our problems today are people problems. Covid-19 is as much a technical challenge as a people one. Alongside development or vaccines and treatment, is the equally difficult task of persuading people to stay calm and safe (for their own sake!)


The answer that drives behaviour in this instance is fear. But it's important to recognise that there are different types of fear, and which fear activates might not be so intuitive.


Ostensibly, the most obvious fear should be health and safety. The point of Covid restrictions is to keep everyone safe as cases rise. Surely, everyone is fearful of this, right?


I don't think so.

Here we turn to Joseph LeDoux from New York University, who helped us to really understand how we learn and re-evaluate our fears.

What LeDoux tested and discovered, is that there are 2 major components to your amygdala - the part of the brain that processes fear, anger, anxiety, and aggression. There is a central amygdala - the triggering of which leads to the experience of the fear response that we are very familiar with. Additionally, there is a basolateral amygdala - this is the region that actively learns and continually confirms what is fearful and what isn’t.

basolateral amygdala.jpg

Suppose you expose a rat to a shock. This causes the fear response to activate - the amygdala lights up, stress hormones are released, heart rate goes up. The rat is afraid. Now suppose we couple the shock with a harmless stimulus, say a short beeping sound. Repeated enough times, fear conditioning happens - the rat becomes fearful just from the sound.  Just hearing that beep triggers the fear response. Very straightforward thus far.


This conditioning leads to actual changes in our brains. As the rats become conditioned to the beep, the neurons in the basolateral amygdala that registers this beep become more active. The links (the scientific term is synapses) between these neurons and those in the central amygdala become more excitable. In other words, your brain learns that the beep is worth being scared of, and it wires itself to reflect this learning.


In the context of Covid, you can see similarities. The beep here is your news outlets and press conferences and social media. The actual shock is getting Covid itself. Over time, we become conditioned to fear listening to the news and gossip, even though by themselves they are actually harmless.


Now, what happens if the conditions change? The beep still occurs, but now, after the beep, there is no more shock. Gradually, the rat learns this and is no longer afraid of the beep. But how does this happen? Recall earlier that neurons in the basolateral amygdala become attuned to the beep once conditioning has occurred. Once these neurons have been wired, it is difficult to unwire. We don't forget our fears.

But now, a new set of neurons in the basolateral amygdala does the opposite - they register, with the support of your prefrontal cortex, that this beep isn’t scary. Nothing happens when the beep comes on. These new neurons inhibit the activation of the earlier set of neurons. Over time, the new neurons become more excitable than the earlier set, completely preventing them from activating your central amygdala and the fear response. We don’t passively forget that something is scary. We actively learn that it isn’t scary anymore.


Again, back to Covid - the news is constantly reporting about rise in Covid cases, and the need to stay safe and be responsible. But for some Singaporeans, they don’t feel like they are in any danger. Covid, by and large, is under control. Even the numbers of new cases feel like a minuscule number, a tiny percentage of total population.

To these Singaporeans, they have actively learnt that the beep isn’t very scary - the constant churn of news or the minister at the press conference telling them to be careful doesn’t feel like it is worth worrying about. They have actively learnt (rightly or wrongly) that Covid is not something they should fear, because probabilistically, nothing is going to happen to them (while this might be morally irresponsible, statistically, this is not untrue - only a very small minority of Singaporeans will get Covid).

The obvious fear of getting Covid might not really trigger for them.


Instead, other fears do.


In another post:
we discussed how humans dread uncertainty. Uncertainty makes us uncomfortable and causes us actual and tangible pain, which can be verified through brain scans.

We also explored the experiment by Gregory Berns et al from Emory University - who found that some people chose to receive a larger electric shock now (certainty), as compared to waiting for a much smaller shock at an uncertain later. They were willing to bear more pain to avoid uncertainty because uncertainty itself is painful.


Covid is an uncertain period. Whether they are fearful of actually getting Covid or not, people have no idea what will happen next. For some, this is particularly uncomfortable and painful.


But what has this got to do with queuing and stocking up when it is not necessary?


Well, the stocking up allows these Singaporeans to create their own certainty. When folks queue up to stock up, they create a certainty that no matter what happens, they are well prepared.


There is a 3rd fear that Singaporeans will be familiar with, the fear of losing out.


People might know there is no need to stock up. But in a competitive environment like Singapore, where people are always comparing, it makes them uncomfortable to not do something when others are doing it. And this compels people into action. In fact, there is a colloquial term that describes this behaviour, which all Singaporeans are familiar with: "Kiasuism".


So the active learning (again there is a subjective element to whether you think this is accurate or not) that Covid is not so scary, and the triggering of other types of fears relating to uncertainty and losing out can cause people to queue and stock up even when it is not necessary. In other words, people might queue knowing full well there is no need to queue. But, it makes them feel better, more secure, and less fearful. Thought this way, this behaviour is not completely ridiculous; we all do different things to soothe ourselves - some of these are dumber than others, but nonetheless from just the point of view of soothing our worries, it works.


But what causes individual difference? Why do some people queue and some people don’t?


It boils down to 2 broad actions that we are constantly taking throughout our lives.


The first is what we call exteroception - making sense of the external environment around us. You can immediately think of how this affects behaviour. Imagine if your social circle is very calm, and all of them repeat the same message - nothing to worry about, these people queueing are crazy. Compare this to say a chat group where someone goes: I’m going to the supermarket, just in case. A second person adds: I’m free this afternoon, might as well go and stock up. And a third person goes: yeq, good idea, it’s better to be safe.


Another influence: saliency. Suppose you received the news of Covid restrictions when you are about to go to the supermarket. And when you were there, suddenly you see all these people grabbing many items, stocking up. Do you think you will be more inclined to do the same?


The second action we do is interoception - making sense of our internal state and thoughts. Again, fairly obvious. If you are very tired, you are less likely to queue. If you are used to buying things online, you are less likely to queue. If you have previously made fun of people queuing, cognitive dissonance makes you less likely to queue. On the other hand, let’s say you are constantly stressing about your family. Say you have some kids and you know they are very busy at work. And you're worried if they have enough supplies, or if they might be caught unprepared. So you might decide, I’m going to queue for them.


Interoception and Exteroception are moderated by individual differences - our personalities, our past experiences, our genes and how and which genes are expressed, the changes in our brains especially during adolescence and in the past 6 months, and so on.

We will explore a little bit more on interoception and exteroception in future chapters, but I hope this piece provides some insight into how we learn and relearn our fears in the context of Covid-19.

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