Bonn Ralph Hertwig heads the research area "Adaptive Rationality" at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. Dennis Scherer talked to him about bulk purchases. His fields of expertise also include the psychology of risk. Dennis Scherer talked to him about bulk buying and how we perceive risk.
Mr Hertwig, how much pasta and toilet paper do you have at home?
Hertwig: Honestly, I would have to check. If I find that it's empty, I'll buy some more.
So you're not worried that there won't be anything to buy any more soon?
Hertwig: No, when it comes to particular food items, you can always avoid it. As in: If noodles are really sold out, you can eat potatoes - or rice. We live in a society where there are many options.
Why do many people now feel the urge to go to the supermarket and stock up?
Hertwig: Of course I can’t get into people's heads. But the coronavirus causes insecurity. In this situation, the behavior of other people is very informative for us. When we see in the supermarket that certain things are sold out, that is a sign: Other people apparently think food may be running out.
What happens then?
Hertwig: Everyone looks at the empty shelves. By imitating the behavior of others, a dynamic can be set off that reinforces itself. Then we have these hamster purchases.
So it's rational to act this way?
Hertwig: It is certainly debatable. The behavior of others becomes the signal that I try to understand. In itself, it is not irrational - not at all. We do that in many areas. But you can also ask: do I really fear that in a few weeks there will be no more rice? We should not let ourselves be overwhelmed by the many social signals.
Is the virus perceived as particularly dangerous because it is not visible?
Hertwig: The perception of danger is often not identical with objective statistics. This is due to the properties of risks. For example: Are we aware of the risk or is it new? I can't observe viruses or radioactive radiation either. It seems that these things give rise to a diffuse feeling of uncertainty.
(Original text: Dennis Scherer; Translation: Mareike Graepel)