Monday, March 16, 2020

The Predictability of Panic: How This Pandemic Will Progress

WARNING: This post is not for the faint of heart. If you're prone to anxiety and the coronavirus is freaking you out, don't read this.


Okay, so you decided to continue. I never imagined a situation where I'd be writing this post. But here we are.

I spend a lot of time compulsively observing how individuals are affected by groups. I blame my training as an experimental social psychologist. This pandemic has evolved in a pretty predictable fashion, which has made it an absolutely fascinating phenomenon to watch unfold. So far, individuals’ reactions have been relatively mild.

Unfortunately, it’s going to get worse. 

Probably A LOT worse.

This is the nature of exponential growth… it never seems bad until it really gets bad. The number of positive cases of coronavirus and resulting deaths is doubling every two days. I believe we’re at around 3,000 cases and about sixty deaths as of Monday morning. If nothing happens (like a mandatory national quarantine), we’ll have over 700,000 positive cases and about 15,000 deaths by April Fool's Day.

When we see slow-moving events, all of us have what I’ll call a Personal Tipping Point where we undergo an internal shift from “this is being overblown” to “hmmmm… maybe I should start taking this seriously.” It’s a very subtle shift, and it never triggers panic. Initially, at least.

The progression from that point results in a chain of predictable behaviors, which all have an effect on the entirety of society:

First, people start attuning to the news a little closer. They start paying attention to the number of positive cases and the number of deaths. They start paying attention to the spread of the virus. They’re basically collecting information that’ll give them an internal countdown until this could become a problem for them. As the number of cases gets higher and/or the cases get closer to them personally (vicariously through public figures, cases in their state, in their city/town, in their workplace, in their family, etc.), the speed and degree of anxiety increases. 

Second, people start attuning to environmental cues. The most significant one here are store shelves. Are items sold out? Are items being restocked? What products are sold out? Other, more minor cues are also used, too. Lines of people. Sports leagues shutting down. Schools and businesses closing. Financial markets crashing. Gas shortages. Mandatory quarantines. Municipal services being suspended. With all of these, we see an increase in the speed and degree of anxiety increases.

Third, people start hoarding. This is greatly exacerbated by #2 above. First, people will buy rationally (and smartly) supplies based on the CDC recommendation that people have a two week supply of food, water, medicine, etc. This itself creates a problem because people are bad at estimating their needs for two weeks and will ALWAYS err on the side of excess. Also, people generally distrust our government, especially given the events of the last three+ years, so people tend to double that recommendation, meaning a lot of people will try to collect supplies for a month. Finally, we have the psychological game theory component that suggests people, because our immediate future is extremely unpredictable right now, expect the absolute worst. To temper that anxiety, they begin preparing for the worst and horde as much as they possibly can, usually only being limited by their finances and the available supplies in stores. The fact that they’re experiencing this IN ADDITION to seeing a slew of empty shelves further fuels this panic. 

Fourth, people start attuning to other people. We’re social creatures, meaning we’re always looking to others for clues on how we should be behaving in any given situation. Whenever we’re out in public, we watch others. As long as everyone looks relaxed, we’ll be relaxed. But as soon as we sense tension, we get a little tense ourselves. And that tension spreads. And grows exponentially. Soon it turns to visible anxiety and stress. People begin to get defensive and irritable. And possessive. As the tension increases, emotions increasingly guide our behaviors, which is often what leads to aggression and violence. That’s often the spark that ignites civil disobedience and a collapse of the social contract that normally reins in our darker impulses.

The Stages of Pandemic Panic

So how does all of this manifest within a typical individual? That, too, is fairly predictable.

Stage One: In the beginning, all but the most paranoid will assume the pandemic is a distant problem that, while interesting, is no reason to be concerned. People will go about their daily lives normally and see the people in some stage of panic as being completely irrational. Maybe even stupid.

Stage Two: Then that tipping point happens. They see or hear something that triggers a primal survival instinct. In a slow-developing crisis like this, that tipping point manifests as a little internal whisper. 

“Pssst. Hey. You’re not prepared if this turns out badly.”

That feeling is often met with a great deal of cognitive dissonance as the person grapples with the struggle between feeling stupid for buying into what seems like irrational panic versus making a rational decision to start taking steps to prepare for some unknown, poorly-defined  threat. This is when people start those four behaviors I listed above, but will often do them secretly. They’re not going to verbalize their anxiety at this point because they still believe it’s irrational.

As they start engaging in those four behaviors, they begin filtering the news they consume by ignoring the positive stories and focusing on the negative. They start looking to authority figures or honest, accurate answers. If authority figures minimize the threat contrary to obvious evidence or fail to give simple, actionable steps, anxiety increases. Any sense that the authorities are hiding information ALWAYS amplifies collective and individual anxieties. 

They also start taking stock of their supplies. With very few exceptions, they’ll perceive themselves as being unprepared, which triggers a powerful drive to collect anything and everything they believe they might need. This never starts on a large scale, though. It’ll start with small steps like making sure you have supplies that will protect you from the threat. In the case of the coronavirus, that’s why hand sanitizer, vitamin C, and face masks sold out first. 

Stage Three: Then people start buying the stuff they normally buy, only on a larger scale. This is why people started buying more toilet paper than usual, which most people misunderstood as an irrationally-stupid preparation. As I explained in this post, the psychology behind it was predictable and rational. Besides toilet paper, people will also buy soap, laundry detergent, and anything else they might need for two weeks. People are basically just shopping as they would normally, just buying twice as much. The specific buying behavior is almost like obsessive-compulsive behavior - people think about the vague threat posed in the future, which produces anxiety. That anxiety is temporarily reduced by BUYING stuff. This dynamic fuels all the future stages and, once, started, is close to impossible to stop. When a certain percentage of the population gets to this stage, our distribution networks notice the effect. This alone stresses the distribution network, but it’s still entirely manageable. You’ll see stores starting to implement quantity limits and maybe shorten their hours.

Stage Four: The next step in the progression of panic happens when people start realizing their food supply might be inadequate. This causes people to start buying large quantities of the foods they normally buy IN ADDITION to “survival staples” like flour, sugar, beans, rice, powdered milk, canned goods that aren’t gross, some OTC medications, and so on. Internally, the individual is now preparing for an ever-worsening but still undefined threat. At this point, the person is still probably embarrassed to admit their growing fear because it still feels irrational even though it’s making more and more logical sense. When a certain percentage of the population reaches this stage, stores will have sold out of most of these products, and the distribution networks start to seriously struggle to meet demand. Stores will start employing armed security to keep the peace. Some high-demand products will be sold out for weeks or months. Some stores may close for days at this point.

Stage Five: The next stage is a serious escalation internally. As people begin to perceive increasing panic in others, they begin to experience serious anxiety about other people. This is an emotional reaction, thus uncontrollable. This is the stage when people begin buying products they don’t normally buy but might be shelf-stable. This is also the stage where people begin buying guns, ammunition, pepper spray, and other defensive items. People may also start buying gasoline and medical supplies unrelated to the virus. By this stage, they’ve gotten over the anxiety of looking foolish. They care more about getting ready for this threat than the social judgment of others, which represents the initial shedding of social mores that will lead to much more significant erosions of social mores in the near future. This is the point, once a certain number of people reach this stage, we start to see our distribution networks failing to meet demand for anything and everything, and violence in and around stores starts to become commonplace as people await shipments to replenish barren shelves. 

Stage Six: Anxiety is beginning to morph into full-blown panic at this point and will hoard anything and everything of value, logical or not. This is also the stage where people really begin adopting an “It’s either you or me” mindset where everyone outside their “tribe” of close friends or family members is perceived as a threat. People also get extremely protective of their property. This is the stage where people can and will use violence to continue hoarding and to protect their “stuff”, and people’s decision-making is now almost entirely emotional. Logic and reason are tossed aside. Once a certain percentage of people reach this stage, we’re basically in a state of anarchy. Widespread civil disobedience (looting and rioting) becomes the norm. People will stay in Stage Six until a) the threat is removed (we find a cure, vaccine, or the virus runs its course), b) the distribution networks are re-established, and c) civil order is restored, usually by force.

So Where Are We Right Now?

Each individual in the situation, which is basically the entire world population right now, will go through these six stages. Some people are already on Stage Six. These are either the hard-core preppers who were already prepared for this before we ever heard of the coronavirus, or the most “paranoid” among us (quotes used because, as the saying goes, it’s not paranoia if the fear turns out to be true.)

Most of us, though, are on one of the lesser stages. If you go out in public right now (which I don’t recommend due to social distancing), you can actually observe different individuals. Based entirely off their body language, you can estimate which stage they’re in. Yes, there are still a lot of people in Stage One. There’s all kinds of reasons for this, such as:

  • They still believe Trump’s early characterization that this is a minor illness akin to the common cold and will just disappear once April hits.
  • They don’t follow the developments, or they believe all news is merely “fake news.”
  • They’re denying the gravity of the circumstances because it’s simply too scary.
  • They’re trying to model being calm by not contributing to the hoarding.
  • They don’t understand human behavior, OR they have irrational confidence in our civility.
  • They’re totally reliant on prepared foods (frozen or restaurant food) and can’t imagine a world where that food might not be available

And so on. Those are the people who will get pissed as they’re reading this post.

This doesn’t include the people who DO understand where this is likely heading but don’t have the financial resources to buy supplies right now. As these folks hit payday and food stamp distribution day, this is going to cause even more shocks to the distribution networks. 

The problem, of course, is all objective evidence suggests this pandemic is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. Based on how the number of cases and deaths is growing exponentially, it’s only a matter of time before it comes to our community, infects someone we know, or maybe even someone we love. What’s happening in Italy and now Spain gives us about a 10-15 day crystal ball. At this juncture, that’s inevitable because we have no way to stop it and far too many asymptomatic-but-infected Americans are still wandering around in public spreading the virus far and wide.

And that’s the scary part. 

Right now, I would estimate significantly more than half of the population is in Stage One. They’ve done absolutely nothing to prepare for a two week quarantine, let alone a longer event where they might not be able to eat in restaurants, order take-out, or buy food in stores. When they DO reach that tipping point and attempt to start buying what they need beyond their normal grocery shopping, they’ll find nothing but empty shelves. Well, maybe some potted meat and vegan hot dogs. 

The result? Almost immediately, they’ll enter Stage Five. These individuals will realize they have no ability to feed themselves or their family for more than a few days. And pandemonium will ensue. 

The rest of us are on one of the other stages and, depending on when we hit our own personal tipping point, in varying degrees of preparedness. The earlier we hit the tipping point, the more likely we’ve adequately prepared because the shelves weren’t empty.

How bad this gets will be entirely dependent on what happens when people hit stages five and six. If we can maintain at least some social bonds with those around us, it’ll get scary but not “descent into anarchy, rioting, and chaos” scary. 

Really, the degree of pandemonium will occur as a function of the distribution network. Under normal circumstances when there’s a run on stores (usually due to a localized disaster, impending storm, etc.), it’s simple enough to shift resources from one region to the affected region, and the shelves get refilled quickly. But this problem is worldwide. The entire Western world is trying to prepare for a quarantine at the exact same time. On top of that, we can expect widespread disruptions in all parts of the distribution network as we’re quarantined to stop the spread of the virus. If the shelves aren’t filled, those folks who are still on Stage One are going to absolutely panic and things will get really ugly really quickly. 

Can This Be Averted?

The virus cannot be stopped, nor can the panic be controlled. It’s estimated that it only takes about 25% of any given population to spark social movements, including mass panic. I’d estimate we’ll pass the point of no return when a quarter of us reach Stage Four. At that point, we’ll start to see the social order breaking down rapidly (like over 24 hours or faster.) 

The ONLY way we prevent a slide into complete chaos is for the government to start rationing staples AND implement some kind of widespread quarantine to prevent people from moving about. This will keep people away from each other (which prevents the panic from spreading through social attenuation), assure everyone will have some access to supplies, and help curb the impending violent encounters at stores.

This could also be SLOWED and the negative consequences reduced (but not prevented) if stores can meet the demands of people buying food and supplies. People seeing empty shelves is a MAJOR driver of this entire cycle. Given the number of people still in Stage One, the number of people who did not have the disposable income to buy before the shelves started to empty, and the number of people who rely on food stamps to buy food, our food distribution network is going to be under even more incredible stress… which will only increase as businesses shut down to help slow the spread of the virus. 

But this sort of government decision has to happen soon, like within a day or three. The longer we wait, the more this will escalate out of control. And it’s going to happen with a speed that will shock everyone except the scientists who, for months, have been pleading for our government to take this seriously. If this doesn’t happen, expect widespread civil disobedience in the near future, maybe as early as the beginning of next week.

What Would I Recommend?

It’s important to note I might be COMPLETELY wrong about all of this. We may be fine. This might be nothing more than a pleasant break from our normally-harried lives. We’ll have a chance to spend some quality time with our kids, read a few books, and binge-watch our favorite Netflix shows. There are encouraging signs that the threat of the actual virus could be mitigated, which of course would radically change this prediction.

I hope I am wrong.

But I don’t think I am.

My recommendation? Start reinforcing your social connections. If things start to go sideways, survival will be a team sport. Offer assistance where you can. Help each other out. No matter where you live, get to know your neighbors. That matters. A lot. Especially if they’re Mormon

Beyond that, do what you can to get prepared for a two weeks of quarantine. Assume everything will be closed and you won’t have access to goods and services for at least two weeks. Once you get to that point, you have to make a decision to keep building your supply OR to back off. Almost everyone, based on human nature, will choose the former. They'll keep buying shit until the run out of money (and maybe credit) or they're forced to stop due to a quarantine. Make sure you factor that into your calculus. 

If you choose to build your supply, pay attention to Walmart. They will always be the first store to sell out of any commodity, then normal grocery stores, then discount stores like Family Dollar, Dollar General, or the 99 Cent Store, then finally convenience stores. The stuff that disappears is predictable. In order:
  • "Protective" stuff like hand sanitizer, masks, and disinfectant
  • Staples like flour, sugar, toilet paper, and items people think fight viruses
  • Bulk foods
  • Dried foods like beans and rice
  • Fresh produce with a long self-life
  • Ammunition and gasoline
  • All medical supplies
  • milk, and eggs
  • Alcohol
  • Crackers and cookies
  • Unpopular canned goods - this one's a bad sign, it means people are getting desperate.
  • Fresh produce with a short shelf life
  • Snack foods like chips and candy - This one's the next bad sign; it means people in your community are really desperate.
  • Anything people perceive as "valuable", which usually includes all kinds of survival-type stuff like duct tape, fishing line, lighters, etc.
  • Anything left on the shelves

I would recommend checking out your local Walmart to see where your community is on the degree of panic. If the potted meat and artichoke hearts are gone, assume the shit's going to hit the fan in the near future.

But anyway, there ARE some things y'all can do. Best case scenario, we'll have overreacted and will have an amusing story to tell our grandkids. Worst case scenario - we descend into apocalyptic chaos and YOU can help us survive and recover.

If you have some leadership chops AND you are calm under intense stressors (or at least can put up a facade of calmness), assume a leadership role in your community, at your workplace, in your “tribe” or at least in your family

If not, do what you can to stay calm. Here are some good tips. The more of us that can keep from losing our shit in the next few days and weeks, the better we’ll all come out in the end. Hopefully this post will give you an idea of what might happen. If it DOES come to fruition, knowing what comes next is a powerful antidote to mitigating the negative outcomes. 

If I’m not wrong, be safe out there, folks. 

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