The Coronavirus, Panic Buying and the Third-Person Effect

Mark Flynn

Can you spare a square? 

It is hard to process just how quickly the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has forced itself upon us. Part of its devastating effects have been in its relentless pace.  As I am writing, the World Health Organization (WHO) moved to classify COVID-19 an official pandemic one week ago. President Trump then declared a national emergency, and a few days later, asked Americans to avoid groups of more than ten. Here in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker recently closed all schools, reduced the previous limit for public gatherings from 250 to 25 people, and restricted restaurants to takeout only.

Still, in the midst of it all, many of us are focused on one seemingly trivial, yet intimately human question:

Do we have enough toilet paper? My partner assures me that we do in our home. But, do we? Really?

Is FOMO to blame? 

This question, along with an e-mail about our bath tissue preoccupation from Emmanuel senior and entrepreneur, Nate Bishop, got me thinking about the role of media in our often (seemingly) irrational responses to crises. About a week ago, Nate sent me a Vice article by Eddy Lim, titled “We asked people buying tons of toilet paper ‘Why?’” In his e-mail, Nate perceptively zeroed in on the FOMO effects mentioned in Lim’s article (making any media professor proud) as a potential explanation for our recent hoarding behavior.  

FOMO, or the fear of missing out, is certainly a highly relevant construct in recent media research—one that is useful to articulate shoppers’ feelings about the urge to purchase excessive amounts of rolls, sanitizer and other household staples.

“A fear-induced stockpiling of supplies, or “panic buying”, is typically fuled by anxiety (e.g. FOMO), and tests the limits we will go to minimize our state of unease.”

Mark Flynn, AssistanT Professor of Communication & Media Studies

Yet, taking Lim’s line of inquiry one step deeper, we can ask not just “Why toilet paper?; but “Why FOMO?”  Why do we feel like we will be missing out? What prompted this feeling in the first place?

The Third-Person Effect in Response to Crises

A media concept approaching its 40th birthday may be helpful in further contextualizing our anxiety-driven shopping tendencies since the COVID-19 crisis.  

To start, I’d like to pose two questions:

  1. On a scale of 1-10 where 1 = “no influence at all” and 10 = “heavy influence,” How much do you think news media influence you?

  2. On that same scale, How much do you think news media influence other people?

Interestingly, most people will say that media influence others more than themselves. In media research, this concept is known as the third-person effect. Officially introduced in Public Opinion Quarterly in 1983, W. Phillips Davison suggested that we often have a self-serving perception of media influence. We make the assumption that I (first person) am much less influenced by media than them (third person). The gap in our perceived influence from “me” to “them” is the third-person effect. 

How does this relate to toilet paper? 

Panic buying has a history of being studied in relation to the third-person effect. In Davison’s original article on the third-person effect, “panic buying” is noted as an example of this effect in action:

“In times when supplies of consumer goods are irregular, there are always some people who will rush to the stores the moment they hear reports of any possible shortage. If you ask them why, the answer is likely to be that they are concerned about the effects of these reports on other people. They want to stock up before the hoarders remove all goods from the shelves.” (p. 13)

Since its theoretical debut, research has consistently found third-person effects lurking in times of crisis. For example, one experiment found participants had a stronger desire to purchase sugar the more they perceived news of a sugar crisis to be influential over others. This study showed the causal relationship between the presumed influence of the news on others and our own intention for action. A related study found third-person effects promoted increased iodide pill consumption in response to Fukushima nuclear pollution news coverage.

We see this idea playing out with COVID-19 as well. In Lim’s Vice article, each interviewee mentioned some version of the third-person effect, like Lily, 65, who saw “everyone else panicking,” and Hayden, 30, who said, “It was mainly the news going crazy about it…” as well as “all the stuff you see on social media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all the news channels on TV.”

Ironically, the perception of superiority that others will be more influenced than us by news and social media posts about panic buying toilet paper, sanitizer and protective masks may be one of the factors that finds us purchasing excessive amounts or waiting in line for these very items. 

How can we minimize our susceptibility to the third-person effect?

  1. Awareness: Simply being aware of the third-person effects can help us reduce its potential influence over us. Next time you are watching a news report of bare supermarket shelves, or your friends’ post about stocking up on necessities, ask yourself if this pressure is real. By the way, in the U.S. we have plenty of toilet paper to go around.

  2. Engage in “perspectivetaking”: Müller & Scherr (2017) found that thinking from the perspective of others may minimize the third-person effects. The authors suggested that perspective-taking may remove emotional distance between ourselves and others, making individuals “less motivated to see themselves as superior to others” (p. 140). This may lead us to see media influence on ourselves in more realistic/less biased ways.

  3. Shift the norm: The third-person effect is often reversed when we consume media content with “prosocial messages.” This means that when socially responsible behavior is promoted (e.g. like this Sunday Times article seeking to make panic buying socially unacceptable), we may internalize media influence as more impactful on us than on others. The shift from third-person to first-person perception could be another way to curb panic buying.    

  4. Can’t we all just spare a square? Any Seinfeld fan knows well the utter despair felt by Elaine when, upon realizing that her stall was out of toilet paper, pleaded for just one ply of one square of toilet paper from her neighbor in a public restroom. There are many of us in need of help, unable to go to the store or afford the basic necessities. Many of us have physical and/or mental health issues that make it even more difficult, if not impossible to function in the midst of this crisis.

Perspective-taking and shifting the norm in the face of third-person effects can go one step further to being good citizens in response to the needs of others—like embracing social distancing, supporting local businesses and low wage workers, or helping children in need of school lunches, among the many ways to bring some small comfort to others during this crisis.

Mark Flynn
Mark Flynn

Mark Flynn is Assistant Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Emmanuel College. He received a BA in Communications from Roger Williams University, an MA in Communication Studies from the University of Rhode Island, and a PhD in Media and Communication from Bowling Green State University. His research has primarily focused on media effects and health communication, and the intersection between these two areas, and is particularly interested in the relationship between media use and health issues related to body image and risk behavior (e.g. drinking, smoking, drug use, etc.).