Scarcity and Fear Capturing the Mind

Toilet paper at Crozet Market.

What is it about toilet paper? Basic staples like rice and pasta, along with the toilet paper, are the first to disappear from store shelves. Panic buying results from unchecked emotion and leads to shortages. It is not rationally proportional to the current public health threat. Stores are able to restock, but the toilet paper aisles are quickly made bare again. 

A study of human behavior from an economic and cognitive point of view is explored in a 2013 publication by Sendhil Mullaninathan and Eldar Shafir, titled Scarcity, Why Having Too Little Means So Much. The authors create scarcity in lab experiments and show the mental focus they call a dividend by illustrating how, for example, deadlines create a scarcity of time. A focus on scarcity leads us to “tunnel” thinking, which results in the neglect of other things. Individuals who lose control over their fear of scarcity put others outside this tunnel vision.  

The psychology of fear was explored on a recent Big Picture Science podcast titled Skeptic Check–Pandemic Fear.  The episode sought answers to questions such as, “Can we identify when we’re acting sensibly in the face of COVID-19, or when fear has hijacked our ability to think rationally and protect ourselves?” Turning handshakes into elbow bumps shows what’s possible.  

One of the podcast guests was John Barry, an adjunct faculty at Tulane School of Tropical Medicine and the author of The Great Influenza; The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Barry described how fear amplified to make the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic so deadly, killing a 50-100 million people. While today’s culture, politics and medicine are different, the history of this earlier pandemic shows that confidence in leadership is a critical lesson. Barry describes how society is based on trust and the truth, however unpleasant, must be told. Barry described how Philadelphia planned a liberty parade and the medical community wanted it cancelled because they were afraid of spreading the deadly flu. The opinions of doctors were cut out of newspaper stories. The newly enacted Sedition Act made it illegal to say, print, write or publish anything negative about war effort, which included the severity and novelty of the flu. The parade did go forward, and 48 hours later the disease death toll exploded. Philadelphia was one of the hardest hit cities in the country. The public quickly lost trust in authority and a breakdown in social support followed. 

Another guest of the podcast episode, David De Steno, a social psychologist and professor of psychology at Northeastern University, provided advice about understanding if our response is rational or if our thinking has been hijacked by fear. Imagining a “What if” scenario is one where De Steno says to be skeptical of our response. It is better to refocus on precautionary behaviors such as hand washing and coughing into one’s elbow joint. 

David Smith, virologist and head of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health, University of California/San Diego, another of the podcast’s guests, reminds us to tamp down our fear with facts. Follow the Department of Public Health recommendations for when to stay home and when and where to go out. Fear is an emotion that can motivate, but may also lead to unhelpful panic behavior.  

You can deal with these fears of scarcity if you do know what the truth is. The warehouses are full of toilet paper. 


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