Panic buying at the start of Covid-19 outbreak was prompted by humans’ ‘animal instinct’ to hoard food during times of danger, study finds

  • UK researchers draw parallels with human hoarders and animals out in the wild
  • ‘Panic buying’ is a form of stockpiling just like squirrels and other small mammals
  • Fear of the virus when outside also mirrors bird having to navigate its predators 

Scrabbling desperately for items in the supermarket, dubbed ‘panic buying’, is linked to how animals hoard food during times of danger, a new study claims.

Researchers at Middlesex University have authored a paper on the comparisons between creatures in the wild and humans at the supermarkets – both of which they refer to as ‘foragers’. 

They say the uncertainty caused by the virus, which led people to stock up on items because they anticipated a time when food became scarce.

This natural behaviour is much like a squirrel hoarding nuts or a hamster filling its cheeks with seeds to hide them in its nest. 

Fear of contact with others because of the risk of catching the virus is also mirrored by how animals such as birds react when they are faced with threats from predators. 

Pictured: Long Queues at Costco, Croydon. Humans are ‘foragers’ just like small mammals in the wild, researchers say

Bare supermarket shelves were a particularly common site earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, as Brits prepared for a prolonged period in the home – and the behaviour could be particularly pronounced once again in the midst of a second wave. 

‘The increased shopping witnessed at the start of the pandemic in response to the uncertainty and risk posed by the possible shortage of food is a very similar behaviour to that exhibited by animals when hoarding food in the face of danger,’ said Professor Tom Dickins, an expert in behavioural science at Middlesex University

‘There was suddenly uncertainty about food supply, which is a prime requirement, and we were also told if we went outside we were at increased risk of sickness and death. 

‘So we were thrown into this world of uncertainty and risk and this flipped people from their normal steady state behaviours into a new set of behaviours whilst they learned to deal with the situation.

‘Whilst you did initially see something that’s labelled “panic buying”, it’s actually people rationally adjusting to a situation that’s scary and then getting on with it.’ 

Pictured: cooking oil running out in Tesco Edmonton Tesco Edmonton, North London. Supermarket sales rocketed as coronavirus spread across the UK. The risk and uncertainty caused by the pandemic led people to change their behaviour and stock up on food items because they feared a shortage of supply in future

In March, the general population had been given good reasons to suppose that access to food resources would change for the worse, the experts say. 

Many feared disruptions to the food supply chain as key workers fell ill and that they’d have to limit shopping trips in order to comply with lockdown. 

Therefore, shoppers made the most of each shopping trip to anticipate long stretches of not being able to leave the house – and consequently stripped the shelves of our big supermarket chains.   

The experts compare our fear of the virus and the predators that creatures have to face in the wild. 

Panic buying behaviour is much like a squirrel hoarding nuts or a hamster filling its cheeks with seeds to hide them in its nest

For example, small passerine birds that face the risk of being eaten by foxes, snakes and other birds ‘have to constantly balance starvation against predation risk’.

They do this by timing their excursions for food in the morning and at sunset, avoiding predators throughout the day. 

This behaviour is mirrored by humans during the pandemic as we need to visit the supermarkets at a time when the threat to our lives – the coronavirus – is less prevalent.

Therefore many of us opt to visit the supermarkets at quiet times – such as a weekday night – when there are potentially fewer viral carriers in the vicinity. 

Fear of the virus when outside also mirrors bird having to navigate its predators. Pictured, a Eurasian nuthatch or wood nuthatch (Sitta europaea)

‘Whilst the virus is not a predator, but rather a parasite, the public health response to the pandemic has been directed at social behaviours making clear that risk of morbidity and mortality is increased by social contact,’ said Professor Dickins and PhD candidate Sabrina Schalz in their paper, published in Learning and Motivation.  

‘To some interesting extent this should increase vigilance around other people, not dissimilar to increases in vigilance seen in animal foraging under predation as other people might become associated with a perceived threat to life.’ 

Researchers also draw parallels with fat deposition in the wild – eating large amounts to increase fat energy reserves. 

However, people who panic buy likely stockpile food items rather than gorged on them to increase their fat reserves.   

The study also highlighted sales data from retail measurement firm Neilsen Scantrack, which showed drastic sales increases between February 29 and March 21, 2020, compared to the same weeks in 2019. 

The five most popular items based on sales increases in the week ending March 21 were cold and flu medicines, which saw a 231 per cent increase over last year, canned pasta (226 per cent), throat care (224 per cent), soup (206 per cent) and canned meat (200 per cent).  

Toilet roll sales, meanwhile, increased 140 per cent in the week ending March 14 compared to the same week in 2019. 

‘When the increases were marked it was products that have very long shelf lives so people were getting in early and solving the problem so they could deal with the uncertainty because at that point nobody knew when supply lines were going to be improve,’ said Professor Dickins. 

‘It’s actually very rational and sensible behaviour and probably the product of evolution acting over decision mechanisms over a very long period of time.’       

Earlier in the pandemic, another psychologist said we specifically panic bought toilet paper in March and April due to a heightened sense of disgust towards dirt and infections during a pandemic. 


Shoppers around Britain were lucky to get their hands on toilet paper from the major supermarkets in March and April. Pictured, depleted shelves at an Asda

A ‘built-in alarm system’ that keeps us safe from danger could be the reason for people mass-buying toilet roll during the coronavirus, a psychologist said in March.  

As people become scared by the thought of catching coronavirus, their sensitivity to disgust increases, says Dr Steven Taylor at the University of British Columbia.

This causes them to buy products to keep them clean in large quantities – not just toilet paper but disinfectant wipes and hand sanitisers. 

Dr Taylor, who specialises in behaviour during pandemics, called toilet paper in particular ‘a conditioned symbol of safety’ that alleviates a fear of getting the virus. 

Dr Taylor at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Psychiatry released his book ‘The Psychology of Pandemics’ before the outbreak was first identified in Wuhan, China. 

‘In a pandemic, people are more likely to experience the emotion of disgust and are more motivated to avoid it,’ Dr Taylor told the Times.

‘In that sense, the purchase of toilet paper makes sense because it is linked to our ability to avoid disgusting things. It’s not that surprising. 

‘In psychology research, it is called a conditioned safety signal – it’s almost like a good luck charm or a way of keeping safe. 

‘This type of behaviour is very instinctive and prominent in pandemics.’ 

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