This study reveals the real reason so many people are panicking right now

Emotions are high all around right now, and everyone’s feeling vulnerable. The novel coronavirus is non-discriminatory; it doesn’t care about your race, religion, or the number of zeros in your bank account. While the coronavirus was a distant problem for Americans just a month ago, as the days go by more and more of us are experiencing its repercussions first hand; either by becoming infected ourselves or finding out that a loved one, friend, or colleague has tested positive.

It’s more important now than ever before for people to stay calm and logical through all of this. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case in the majority of instances. The toilet paper debacle is one such example. Despite literally no concrete evidence that toilet paper is going to run out or become sparse, Americans and citizens of other countries all over the world flocked to stores to buy rolls in bulk. It wasn’t logical, but a new study finds that in times of crisis people can’t help but go with their gut over the facts.

Researchers from The University of Texas at Arlington have concluded that when people feel anxious and vulnerable they tend to make decisions based on anecdotal evidence, hearsay, and emotions. 

It’s completely understandable. You go to the store and see the toilet paper aisle completely barren and cleared out. It’s an upsetting sight, and you suddenly find yourself internally panicking because you didn’t think far enough ahead to stockpile toilet paper. So, you hop in the car and buy five bags of toilet paper at another store. Ultimately, though, it’s an illogical response driven by emotion and vulnerability.

“We found that people are more likely to consider personal anecdotes than fact-based information, especially when it deals with medical emergencies,” explains Traci Freling, a professor of marketing at UTA, in a press release. “This has a high importance in the current environment, where everyone is concerned about the coronavirus.”

These findings are also relevant regarding the rise of COVID-19 related misinformation. There’s a new conspiracy theory, miracle cure, or inaccurate headline on a daily basis. These irresponsible and dangerous stories are being shared thousands of times across social media platforms and messaging apps like WhatsApp. Most of the people spreading these lies aren’t doing so maliciously, but in a crisis period like right now people latch on to anything that reinforces their preconceived world view, especially if it’s shared by a close friend or relative.

According to professor Freling and her colleague, professor Ritesh Saini, this human tendency to trust personal stories and anecdotes over verified facts is especially true during medical emergencies that hit close to home.

“They are especially dismissive of facts if the incident is something they personally experienced,” Freling says. “Specifically, we show that when an issue is health-related, personally relevant or highly threatening, then decision-making is compromised and people tend to rely on anecdotes.”

Conversely, the study’s authors also found that people trust in stats and facts much more diligently during non-crisis situations. The more intense a scenario becomes, the less clearly people think.

“Primarily, when there is low-threat severity or it’s a non-health issue, people tend to take cold, hard facts into account rather than personal accounts and stories,” Freling explains.

Another puzzling conclusion was that, even in times of crisis, people favor facts when making decisions for others but fall into irrationality when making personal choices.

It isn’t easy, but these findings drive home the fact that we should all do our best to resist succumbing to emotion and hysteria throughout this pandemic. Don’t shut yourself off completely from your emotions; feelings are an essential part of being human. However, it’s just as important to maintain control over one’s emotions.

The full study can be found here, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.