On 7th Feb 2020, the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced that Singapore’s risk assessment of ‘Disease Outbreak Response System Condition’ (DORSCON) alert levels has moved up from yellow to orange. (Ministry of Health [MOH], 2020)
Source: Channel News Asia
This sparked a nation-wide panic-buying of essential goods such as toilet paper, instant noodles and masks. Never-ending queues looked like Chinese New Year shopping never ended, but the only difference was that this time round shopping stemmed from fear instead of celebration.
Source: Jemie Sim
Many reactions of panic-buying on social media included jokes about losing all of your hair from instant noodles even before the coronavirus outbreak eases, and pictures of condoms running out to show the extent of fear that Singaporeans are experiencing. There is indeed a wide range or reactions to the current situation – some people empathized, while others expressed astonishment and even disgust, while others laughed at the memes circulated.
The question many people are wondering – Why are many Singaporeans panic buying?
Could the Singaporean characteristic of “kiasu-ism”be the onlyexplanation that sets us apart from other coronavirus infected countries who have yet to display such drastic extents of panic-buying? Is a certain population more susceptible to panic-buying compared to other groups of Singaporeans?
This post seeks to explore a tandem of reasons that could explain the behavior of panic-buying of Singaporeans, and perhaps help Singaporeans understand where their fear is stemming from.
Before that, it is important to define panic-buying. According to Cambridge dictionary:
- The uncertainty of the situation breeds anxiety
While Singaporeans understand that vaccines are not created overnight, this does not mean they have less reason worry. Due to the nature of the situation, it is clear that there is no definite answer when the coronavirus outbreak will come under control and end definitely.Therefore, it is this uncertainty that perpetuates fear, and the unpredictability of the solution that propels Singaporeans to take action should conditions worsen.
It is interesting to note though, that according to Hofstede’s culture index, Singapore has a low uncertainty avoidance index (UAI). This highlights that contrary to popular belief that Singapore is a conformist conservative, members of the society are able to cope with both uncertainty and ambiguity. (Hofstede, 1991)
However, could it be that Hofstede’s UAI does not hold in the face of the coronavirus epidemic? Or could there be other reasons why some Singaporeans are not thriving under the uncertainty of COVID-19?
- Kiasu-ness propels Singaporeans to panic-buy
According to Oxford English Dictionary (n.d), the term, Kiasu is used to refer to an individual who is governed by self-interest, typically manifesting as a selfish, grasping attitude arising from a fear of missing out on something.
Hence, panic buying behaviour stems from the fear of missing out insofar as losing on getting their hands on basic goods such as toilet paper, instant noodles, etc. Perhaps the fear that Singapore will have to undergo a sudden nation-wide lockdown, propelled a number of Singaporeans to want to be ahead, in order to grab on to anything they deem needful before it either runs out, or before they are unable to leave the house.
Why is panic-buying so intense in Singapore then, compared to other neighbouring countries?
- Sense of control
According to Mushtaq, Bland and Schaefar (2011), the perception of uncertainty might be a main role in monitoring cognitive control, more specifically, our evaluation of the “need for control”. Essentially, the perception of uncertainty enhances the need for control, thus explaining how panic buying is an attempt for individuals to regain a sense of control in the midst of the unpredictable and uncertain viral outbreak.
However, Cohen (2011) believes that the key to controlling your losing-control anxiety is to “Let go of your demand for certainty—essentially, give up your unrealistic perfectionism about reality.”
In other words, it is to let go of the unrealistic reality that the Coronavirus outbreak will come under complete control overnight. Meanwhile, we can still take pride in knowing that there is hope, as increasing number of patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19being discharged since 9thFeb. In all, six have fully recovered from the infection and have been discharged from hospital. (MOH, 2020)
- Perception of scarcity in basic goods
The perception of scarcity in basic good drives demand to increase, since perceived supply is falling rapidly. As news continue to spread that supermarkets are being wiped out row by row, the perceived lack of essential goods could have led to many Singaporeans diving in head first and grab whatever they can lay their hands on, before it runs out. Before the supermarket staff are even able to restock sold-out products, the same thing happens, where people buy in large quantities, thus leaving the shelves empty for most of the day. This vicious cycle perpetuates the perception of lack, till the government had to step in to address the issue, in order to reassure Singaporeans that we do not have lack supplies of essential goods. (Chan, 2020)
However, while the perception of scarcity might be less skewed after the Government’s reassurance, this reassurance would perhaps not completely stop panic-buying. Since, we have identified several reasons why panic-buying is taking place, by correcting the perception of scarcity, it would at best slow down and deescalate panic-buying in the short run. However, as the uncertainty of COVID-19prevails, those who see the need to stock up on essential goods will still be susceptible to stock up if they feel the need to.
- Social learning of panic-buying through social media
Through social media, social learning of panic-buying takes place. Social learning refers to the view that people learn by observing others. This can be seen in the figure below that explains how social media contributed to social learning of panic buying, according to Albert Bandura’s social learning theory (1977).
Source: Josephine Lim
This can be supported by Zadrozny, Rosenblatt and Collins (2020), that highlight how social media is involved in the dissemination of misleading information about the coronavirus that spreads throughout social media platforms, including elements of fearmongering. Advanced technology allows for increasing connectedness, yet social media is also a double-edged sword in time of an epidemic, as it allows for fearmongering to catalyse, spreading misinformation like wildfire.
- The herd mentality
The herd mentality essentially refers to people seeking “the actions of others as a guide to sensible behavior, independently seeking out high-quality information about the likely outcomes of these actions”(Prince, 2013)
According to a Taipei-City psychiatrist, panic purchases of basic goods such as toilet paper is considered “herd behavior,” and excessive feelings of insecurity can lead to hoarding. (Lin & Hsiao, 2018) In general, individuals seek to belong in a group, in order to feel safe and contented (Maecham, 2013). Panic-buying effectively integrates individuals to feel a sense of belonging in their social groups, since it is an in-group behavior of the majority.
Since the herd mentality is often driven by emotional reactions such as greed and fear, this explains why some Singaporeans don’t just buy what they perceive is enough, but tend to buy in large quantities more than what they need.
Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Chan Chun Sing (2020, Feb 8). Timeline [Facebook Page]. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/ChanChunSing.SG/posts/2959278300790800
Cohen, E. D. (2011, May 22). The Fear of Losing Control. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-would-aristotle-do/201105/the-fear-losing-control
Koay, A. (2020, February 2). What happened in S’pore during the SARS outbreak in 2003 & how we dealt with it, explained. Retrieved from https://mothership.sg/2020/02/sars-wuhan-outbreak-explained/
Mushtaq, F., Bland, A. R., & Schaefer, A. (2011). Uncertainty and cognitive control. Frontiers in psychology, 2, 249. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00249
Ministry of Health. (2020, February 9). News Highlights. Retrieved from https://www.moh.gov.sg/news-highlights/details/four-more-cases-discharged-three-new-confirmed-cases-of-novel-coronavirus-infection
Ministry of Health. (2020, February 7). News Highlights. Retrieved from https://www.moh.gov.sg/news-highlights/details/risk-assessment-raised-to-dorscon-orange
Panic buying (n.d). In Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/panic-buying
Hofstede, G. (1991). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. London: McGraw-Hill
Kiasu (n.d). In Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved from
Lin, H.-chin, & Hsiao, S. (2018, March 3). Panic buying is ‘herd behavior,’ leading to hoarding, doctor says. Retrieved from http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2018/03/03/2003688606
Meacham, M. (2013, July 9). The Brain and the Herd Mentality. Retrieved from https://www.td.org/insights/the-brain-and-the-herd-mentality
Price, M. E. (2013, June 25). Human Herding: How People are Like Guppies. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/darwin-eternity/201306/human-herding-how-people-are-guppies
Zadrozny, B., Rosenblatt, K., & Collins, B. (2020, January 30). Coronavirus misinformation surges, fueled by clout chasers. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/social-media/coronavirus-misinformation-surges-fueled-chase-attention-n1126511