Coronavirus, pandemic shopping and Tom Hanks

March 13, 2020

Right now, the one thing everyone is thinking and talking about is coronavirus; at home, at work, online and in the media. 

We’re seeing wild volatility across financial markets, a devasted travel industry, businesses and schools going into lockdown and panic shopping is rife with toilet paper flying off supermarket shelves and we don’t know how long it will last. 

Initially, it felt like a remote threat, something that was impacting people living in China, Japan and on cruise ships, however there has been a noticeable shift in public sentiment in the last few days as the perceived personal risk has escalated amongst Australians. In this time of heightened uncertainty surrounding an unprecedented pandemic people are now calling on the government for direction.

So, what is driving this behaviour? 

Behavioural science tells us that our human capacity to assess risk is biased and influenced by mental heuristics or short cuts. Essentially, we’re far from perfect at assessing risk accurately. The proliferation of media reports about coronavirus fatalities inflate our perception of our personal risk of the disease. This is called the availability heuristic. The more we hear about the risk the more we overestimate it, even if statistically, our personal risk of contracting the disease is low. 

Moreover, our sense of personal risk is further amplified when we hear of people in our suburb, our city or our state being infected, or even someone familiar to us, like Tom Hanks. This explains the recent shift in public sentiment towards coronavirus we are now witnessing.

Social proof or herding is driving the current panic buying behaviour even though home grown toilet paper manufacturers have reassured us that they can more than meet demand. When we feel uncertain of what to do we look to others to guide our behaviour, so when we hear of people fighting in the aisles over toilet rolls we stock up ourselves. 

Empty shelves have essentially become a mental heuristic or short cut to panic buy other items. Like the virus itself spreading through social networks our behaviour spreads through social norms perpetuating even more panic buying.

Source: Aunty Acid

In these times of uncertainty people are calling out for clear guidelines from the government, but to date have been receiving mixed messages. While the Dark MoFo festival and Australian Grand Prix have been cancelled, our prime minister has announced his attendance at the Sharks versus Rabbitoh’s game this weekend. These contradictions are confusing and increase fear and anxiety surrounding covid-19. As humans we we dislike uncertainty; when we have insufficient information, when our fears and concerns are not answered we become agitated and feel dissatisfied. Providing timely updates and clear guidelines and thresholds for social distancing and cancellation of public events is key to resolving these feelings.

The good news is that we can use our understanding of what drives human behaviour to implement positive steps to protect ourselves from risk, for example: implementing new habits around regular hand washing. 

One of the key tenets of changing behaviour is to make it easy. Developing a memorable heuristic or mental shortcut around handwashing is likely to be effective. For example, the US Centre for Disease Control is recommending washing your hands for 20 seconds or singing Happy Birthday twice, a fantastic, easy mental short cut. 

Salience is another bias we can leverage to change behaviour. We are drawn to things that are novel and stand out. This sign recently seen over the sky over Sydney Harbour leverages salience to encourage people to wash their hands more often. Simple measure introduced in timely moments are also effective such as signs at washbasins, in workplace kitchens and having antiseptics readily available.

Source: Pedestrian

From here I’ll continue to monitor the conversation and remain, along with my colleagues at The Lab, alert but not alarmed.

Take care,