As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world, an interesting phenomenon was playing out in grocery stores. Panic buying.
Consumers, in the face of increasing uncertainty, began stockpiling in a buying frenzy that left the shelves bare.
Now a study from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia may have an explanation for the behaviour. Unexpected certainty can cause us to change our behavior even if it isn't helpful.
"Our knowledge about how people react to uncertainty is only really beginning to emerge. At the time we thought of the study, we reasoned it was important to understand how behaviour differed between when one experiences unexpected uncertainty (i.e., when your environment changes suddenly) and expected uncertainty (i.e., when your environment changes slowly)," Dr. Adrian Walker, lead author of the study and a researcher at UNSW told Theravive.
"By conceptualising uncertainty into two parts, we could stop thinking of uncertainty as one monolithic structure (i.e., you’re either uncertain or you’re not), and gain a more nuanced understanding of how uncertainty affects behaviour."
Walker says the reactive behavior seen in grocery stores during the pandemic is a common way for people to cope with uncertainty that is unexpected.
Uncertainty that is unexpected can be such a powerful motivational force that it can make people alter their usual behaviors even if it makes them worse off.
During the pandemic when people stocked up on basics like toilet paper, there were shortages of items on the shelves, even though if people had behaved normally there likely would have been enough for everyone.
"When people experience unexpected uncertainty, they tend to change their behaviour much more dramatically than when they experience expected uncertainty, even when it may be detrimental to do so," Walker said.
"I think it has something to do with the fact that unexpected uncertainty may indicate a substantial shift in the structure of your environment. In other words, if you perform a behaviour you have already performed in the past, but you get a different result from that behaviour, it is reasonable to assume that something about your environment has changed. If you think something in your environment has changed, it makes sense that you should try different behaviours to see how they affect this new environment."
Walker’s study is the first to find that the type of uncertainty a person experiences, either expected or unexpected, could influence their reaction to an event or circumstance.
How the public is reacting to the pandemic, Walker says, is a real-life example of unexpected uncertainty. Panic buying is just one example of how people tried to cope with the unexpected uncertainty of COVID-19.
Walker explains that the sudden changes of working from home, changes to how the world socialises, changes to how the public shop and changes to everyday life have caused people to change their behavior as a means to try to cope with uncertainty.
But the researchers also found that when uncertainty is experienced gradually, it is less likely to cause a change to behavior. He uses the example of a boiling frog.
If a change happens slowly it is barely noticeable and there is no compulsion to change behaviour. If a frog is placed in a pot of water that is then boiled, the frog won’t notice that the water is boiling and won’t jump out.
But during the pandemic, society changed swiftly, and so too did the behavior of the public. Walker says understanding this behavior will help manage it.
“Uncertainty can affect us in a lot of different ways, and the more we understand about uncertainty, the better we can prepare to reduce it,” he said.
“It is okay to explore new behaviours when things change unexpectedly, but make sure you actually take the time to assess what your doing and assess the information that you’re getting. As in most things, knee-jerk reactions should be avoided.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.