Fuel Strike Threat: Why Are People Panic Buying?

By Helen Holmes on March 30, 2012

Easter weekend is coming soon but the 2,000 fuel tanker drivers across the country will be conducting a strike on no defined date yet. Motorists are rushing to the garages to top up their tanks. Independent retailers’ group RMI Petrol reported demand for petrol rose 172% on Thursday.  Even though ministers said there’s no point to panic, consumers will continue panic buying. But why?

Why Do People Panic?

Panic buying is a term that is used to describe the act of people buying large amounts of goods or products in anticipation of a perceived disaster, crisis, or shortage. You see, people feel more secured when they have all their needs at hand most importantly during times of mishaps. But sometimes, incorrect anticipation can lead to many problems. This atmosphere of ‘scarcity’ usually leads to unreasonable panic buying.

The ‘toilet paper shortage’ of 1973 for instance has led 20 million in America to rush to their local grocery stores and buy toilet tissue! And the more they see vacant shelves, the more they demand for it. The entire episode all started with an evening comedy show about a ‘joke’ of possible tissue shortage within the next few months. A few nights later, Johnny Carson, the show host, apologised to the public and it took the US three gruelling weeks to replenish their stocks of tissue paper.  The ‘panicking’ of consumers has also led to the collapse of the Last National Bank. When people came into the belief that the bank was in the verge of bankruptcy, they were alarmed and decided to withdraw their accounts, which has caused such a stable company to topple down.

Social Influence

When we don’t know how to behave, we copy other people. So when individuals found out that others are filling up their tanks due to the anticipated shortage, they will do the same (just like what’s happening now). This action is referred to as ‘informational influence’ which was first introduced by Muzafer Sherif, one of the founders of social psychology. Informational influence is a form of conformity which happens when an individual turn to other people to gain information about a certain issue, thinking that someone else has a more accurate information than they do. This usually happens during situations wherein people no longer have time to decide for themselves. As a result, they would just ‘go with the flow’.

Panic-Buying as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Robert Merton, a sociologist in the 20th century was the one who coined the term ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. It refers to a statement that tends to alter one’s action. For instance, if you say ‘I think I am going to have a bad day’. This belief will condition your mind and your body so that your actions will make your prediction come true. So if you say ‘This is going to be a great day!’ it’s most likely that you will have indeed, a great day.  He cited the collapse of the Last National Bank as an example of self-fulfilling prophecy. The prophecy of the ‘collapse’ has lead to fall of the bank.

Stay Calm and Carry On 

90% of the UK forecourts are supplied by the Unite Union and a strike would most likely paralyse the transportation sector. But even though some garages ran dry, retailers said that they were coping with the situation and normal deliveries are enough to supply everyone’s demand for gas. The Chairman of the Independent Retailer’s Group RMI Patrol, Brian Madderson said that the ministers are the ones to blame for making a ‘crisis out of a serious concern’. He added that to prevent panic buying, they should have sought industry advice weeks ago, informing the public how to avoid fuel shortage. According to SMMT, AA, UKPIA/DECC 2010 figures, if everyone filled up today, we still have 14 days to go before the fuel run out. It has also been reported that about 300 Army tanker drivers are on standby to deliver fuel to petrol stations if any possible shortages. So there’s really no need to panic. Just stay calm and carry on. 

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