With queues outside petrol stations and claims that selfish punters are using jerry cans to stockpile fuel, one word has become synonymous with the supply chain crisis that has hit the UK in recent weeks: panic. But the social psychologist Clifford Stott says something different is going on
The fuel crisis that began last month was precipitated by a shortage of HGV drivers – but in newspaper headlines and ministerial interviews ever since, it has largely been blamed on “panic buying”. Whatever the original cause, the argument goes that it is the irrational response of the public, who are buying petrol they do not need, that is responsible for how big the problem has become – and if we would all calm down, it would just melt away. As the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, who described the crisis as a “manufactured situation”, told Sky News: “If everyone carries on buying it when they don’t need it then you will continue to have queues … We appeal to people to be sensible.”
That argument is so commonly accepted as to be unremarkable. But there is another view – and it has significant evidence to support it. Prof Clifford Stott, a social psychologist at Keele University and member of Sage’s advisory subcommittee on public behaviour, has spent his career examining the behaviour of crowds, both in person and acting collectively online. He argues that the tendency to describe a large group’s urgent response to difficult circumstances as a “panic” misrepresents the reality – and says that, in fact, people tend to work together and think rationally about how best to combat the situation.