The Parameters of Panic

We are consistently warned against “panic buying”, but the behaviour that half a frightened population is so eager to stigmatise in the other is far from adequately described by the term “panic”

We know that in political life, things always loop around to where they were. Throughout the pandemic, these loops have proven to be persistent, and to run on short lifespans.

It is only a year since half a frightened population turned its judgement on the other frightened half of a population for taking precautions to ensure they didn’t run out of toilet paper. In the intervening 18 months, this “scared on scared” judgementalism has cycled around leaving the house, going into a shop more than once a week or with another person, going to the beach, where to wear a face cover. Now it has arrived back at “panic buying”, not of food, despite the empty shelves and continual stories of impending food and carbon dioxide shortages, but of petrol.

Whether the queues seen at fuel stations represent “panic buying or not”, it is fairly clear that the toxic response to those queues, dressed up as altruism or public concern, is just that, toxic — driven in large part by years of teaching people to blame their peers rather than their superiors for their feelings of insecurity and 18 months of learning that the best way to feel comfortable about the appropriateness of one’s own response to unique circumstances is the relentless and very public pursuit of those whose response differs.

But I want to question the premise. Is this really panic buying?

One of the things that fascinates me is the sensitivity of parameters. A tiny percentage change in ocean temperature, or acidification, or salinity, for example can have a massive effect on the ecosystems it can support. Dave Brailsford may have popularised the term “marginal gains” in cycling, and Elon Musk may have popularised the idea that adding tiny changes to each other can create an order of magnitude change — but these principles operate around us all the time.

At the start of the pandemic, for example, we saw empty shelves for certain products because the “just in time” supply chains developed in normal times couldn’t recalibrate for the fact that when a population suddenly stays home, even a 5% increase in the amount of home cooked food it consumes is enough to wipe out what’s in the shop warehouse.

So claiming “it’s only a logistics issue” that petrol is in limited supply misses the point. A tiny impact on the regular flow of a product can have a massive impact on its availability. Recalculating one’s personal preparedness in the light of that is hardly “panic” so much as prudence. It is the same as a healthy person realising they need to plan for a time when they are less fortunate through insurance, a young person recognising that their ability to provide changes over time and taking out a private pension. It’s just that the horizon on which these changes are likely to occur is much shorter, so the prudence becomes something very visible.

Take someone with a sick relative who lives 200 miles away for example. They might know that they are likely to have to rush to see them at short notice. But they also know that there is always petrol at the service station. So always having 200 miles of fuel in the tank is a very minor part of their day to day life. On the other hand, if even a tiny change in supply can lead to a large chance of service stations running dry, being ready means having 200 miles of fuel always in the tank. The same for having fuel for the week of work or school ahead.

Then there is the definition of “panic behaviour” as “things you would not do in normal times.” But that makes no sense, because the message we are sent every time we switch on the news or walk down the street is that these are not normal times. We are expected to live our lives with face covers, social distancing, lateral flow and pcr testing — how is appeal to normal supposed to work?

Of course, there are even more complicating factors around messaging — reassurance by authority is disastrous for public confidence — in part because it has so often turned out to be false; but also because of the neurological effect — our brains notice what they take in. Talk about something and our brain focuses on it,and if our brain focuses on it that will drive our action.

In short, “panic buying” is a perfectly rational and prudent (a quality we have been educated to value) response to small changes in parameters during times of general uncertainty. Unfortunately, the judgementalism it provokes is, in the same context, also understandable — it is the response of one frightened group that has been taught to blame its peers for its insecurity to another. The difference is that in “regular times” it is an understandable response that would horrify us.

CEO & founder of Rogue Interrobang, University of Oxford spinout using creativity to solve wicked problems. 2016, 17 & 19 Creative Thinking World Champion.