Coronavirus: Why are people panic buying and why toilet paper?

Clare Sibthorpe, news reporter

The government has told Britons not to "panic buy" amid coronavirus fears, but many are doing the opposite.

The "irrational" behaviour began in the Chinese city of Wuhan - the virus' epicentre - before spreading throughout the Asia-pacific region and now as far as Britain.

We've asked three experts about the psychology behind panic buying, and why one commodity has been in particularly high demand: toilet paper.

Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos: expert in consumer and behavioural science at the University College London

Dr Tsivrikos explained the difference between disaster panic and general panic, with toilet paper becoming a symbol of the latter.

"Disaster panic is normally for something you have more information on, such as a natural disaster," he said.

"You know it is going to happen and you usually know it will last a couple days and you can prepare by being somewhat rational with what you buy.

"But in public health issues we have no idea about the time or intensity and we get messages on a daily basis that we should go into panic mode that we buy into more than we need to. It's our only tool of control."

He said that because toilet paper has a longer shelf-life than many food items, is prominently featured in aisles and is big in size, we are psychologically drawn to purchasing it in times of crisis.

He said: "The bigger they are, the more important we think they are.

"If we had an international sign for panic it would be a traffic warning sign with a toilet paper roll in the middle."

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Katharina Wittgens: psychologist at Innovationbubble, specialising in individual and group behaviour

Ms Wittgens explained our brains are hard-wired to watch out for threat and seek safety, which intensifies when a danger is "new and out of control".

She said shoppers overestimate the risks of dying from coronavirus.

"Far more people die in car accidents or household accidents per year but we don't panic in the morning before we go to work about these things," she said.

"It's hard to convince our brain of facts, hence why statistics often don't work."

She said these "panics" usually decline after a month when people have had time to think more rationally.

When we stand in front of empty shelves, Ms Wittgens explained, people fear that stocks will run out so they buy far more than they need.

This becomes "dangerous" as some goods such as soap, medicines and sanitisers become unavailable for those in immediate need.

It is more obvious when an aisle of toilet paper is empty, compared to other smaller items, which leads to the craze over the item intensifying.

Ms Wittgens added that this intensity is likely to be highest in Western countries, because "it's hard to imagine what we could clean ourselves with without it".

"Faecal matters can carry diseases and can trigger our need to feel safe as well," she said.

Emma Kenny, psychologist

"It's ridiculous," Ms Kelly said of the "panic buying" behaviour - particularly of hoarding loo rolls.

"It's really interesting to see people are stockpiling things like toilet paper… that's not going to get you from A to B in a life or death situation - food is what people would need," she said.

"That's why it's clear that people are not really that concerned about the virus itself but more about holding on to those first-world comforts of being able to use the toilet."

While it was understandable that people would feel concerned about hygiene during self-isolation, Ms Kenny said the amount people were stockpiling was irrational.

"You're not reacting to the virus, you're reacting to the fear of what's going to happen if people all panic buy and that's creating the panic buying which feeds the whole cycle," she said, adding: "And that's a problem".