The UK Government is turning to behavioural science as it considers what further steps need to be taken to address the coronavirus outbreak. Reassuring the public that supply of goods can be managed and panic buying is unnecessary requires considering what factors trigger panic and how people react to real-life situations. This is where behavioural science can assist, as it asks why people 'do what they do' and then considers what may 'nudge' them towards making better choices. Firms and regulators are increasingly using behavioural science to improve compliance and improve decision making.

A significant factor driving panic buying is the public's sense of helplessness in the face of mainstream and social media reports about coronavirus. Stockpiling goods is an action people can take now, and it can make them feel more in control of the situation. The sight of empty supermarket shelves can in itself trigger panic buying, as people fear they may miss out on things they need.

Applying behavioral insights in designing messaging to the public could be an effective way to reduce uncertainty and fear, and address the dynamics of panic. This might include looking at different ways to present / position information about the situation, or providing information about what others are doing (as no one likes to feel like an outlier). If individuals can be encouraged to make better choices through behavioural intervention, this should achieve outcomes that will be better for all.

The sight of supermarket shelves stripped of dried pasta and other foodstuffs is an indication of the febrile public mood. Behavioural scientists — so-called “nudge” experts — have been brought in to advise ministers on the dynamics of panic.