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”. at all event 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 allurement to people to be sensible.”
That argument is so commonly accepted as to be unremarkable. But there is another view – and it has meaningful evidence to sustain 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 inclination 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.
In the fuel crisis, Stott says, there is little evidence that stockpiling is happening on any meaningful extent – instead, the system has simply failed to manager the demands placed on it by people who inevitably need petrol to go about their lives. And when that behaviour is described as panic, blame is easily passed on from those responsible for our shared infrastructure to those who rely on it.
In this episode, Rachel Humphreys talks to Stott about his ideas – and why the concept of panic is such a persistent part of how we think about shortage crises, from toilet roll to pasta. We also hear how Stott believes a change in mindset could help grapple such problems in future – and why it is so useful for some politicians to perpetuate a theory that he says is demonstrably false.
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