Deliah Bolesta is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Social Psychology at the University of Jena.

Panic Buying as a Control Mechanism

Social psychologist Deliah Bolesta discusses human behaviour in the corona crisis.
Deliah Bolesta is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Social Psychology at the University of Jena.
Image: Stephan Laudien

In Germany, the beginning of the corona pandemic was unofficially announced by the sight of empty toilet paper shelves in supermarkets. Suddenly the noodles ran out and hygiene products had to be rationed in many places. What on earth was going on? »For many people, the beginning of the pandemic was accompanied by great uncertainty, a loss of control«, says Deliah Bolesta from the University of Jena. This loss of control was triggered by the lack of real opportunities to tackle the crisis, explains the 30-year-old psychologist who researches the fundamentals of political attitudes at the Schumpeter Centre in Jena. Some of the research conducted by Deliah Bolesta, who is currently working on her doctorate, includes the influence of group affiliation on a person’s political views.

The corona crisis has provided her with welcome research material: »Panic buying is an attempt to create new ways to see ourselves as proactive«, explains Bolesta. The fact that toilet paper and pasta were hoarded – of all things – was a result of the snowball effect; as soon as the first reports announced a shortage of those products, the demand increased even more. But weren’t people stashing away red wine and condoms in France? That was most likely a cliché, speculates Deliah Bolesta, who expects France to have seen a similar rise in the demand for toilet paper and pasta, as both products have a very long shelf life. That’s why many people thought they might as well stock up.

The loss of control that can be seen in the corona crisis is otherwise felt when people are faced with an existential threat or the realization of their own mortality, as shown by a study that was recently published in »PLOS ONE«. The study found that stockpiling is a practice generally favoured by elderly people and those with a greater need for structure and security.

Another side effect of the crisis is the rapid spread of conspiracy theories and fake news. Deliah Bolesta makes a basic distinction between two kinds of conspiracy theorists: Some adhere to a specific theory, such as inconsistencies surrounding 9/11; while others are generally sceptical and believe in the vague possibility of a »hidden truth«. »Those who shout the loudest make the most noise in the media«, says Deliah Bolesta. Most of those who are just generally sceptical are not lost causes; it definitely helps to talk to them without getting hung up on trivial details, says Deliah Bolesta. It is better to look for a meta-level and ask, for example, why the person is pursuing these ideas.

Are there any positive developments in the crisis? Of course, says Deliah Bolesta. The psychologist mentions the way in which people are now helping their neighbours more in many areas, which is another way to combat their loss of control. The second good piece of news is the public renaissance of science. »The public dialogue between politics and science should continue beyond the pandemic«, states Bolesta, as it is mutually beneficial and good for society.

Text: Stephan Laudien