Being a student of human behavior at times causes me to observe phenomena in my world with fascination. Social Psychology is widely defined as “the study of the manner in which the personality, attitudes, motivations, and behavior of the individual influence and are influenced by social groups.” One such phenomenon, which caught my attention was recently when many people in middle TN and Western KY were preparing for an upcoming winter weather event on the evening of 1/19. I needed to run a routine errand to a local grocery store pharmacy. I had noticed some jokes on my Facebook feed prior to going out. The jokes revolved around the tendency of people to swarm into grocery stores prior to winter weather events. I laughed it off as an exaggeration due to being new to this area of the country.
I knew something different was happening when I got to the store and the parking lot was full. This is not a usual occurrence on a week night. I entered the store and saw checkout lines snaking, through the aisles, and clear to the back of the store. After a sigh of relief that I did not have to get into those lines due to the nature of my errand, I was struck by the behaviors of the social group involved in this event.
I am fairly certain that people shopping in this grocery store were not aware of belonging to a social group. The first behaviors I identified were a group of people in a state of conflict and competition. The top items being “competed” for seemed to be mainly perishable food items like milk, eggs, and unfrozen meats. I noticed a smaller, but still significant number of people who were purchasing non-perishable items such as canned goods, bottled water, and breakfast cereal. Competition is a process that is always present among humans as a group but what I witnessed was the result of competition being converted into conflict during a time of perceived crisis the group primarily was competing for perishable goods that were perceived useful.
In actuality bread, milk, eggs and other perishables are not the go to items that will help the group survive in an actual crisis. One suggestion is that when the group is having an initial reaction to an impending storm situation the lean toward perishable items when preparing for a short term event. The drive toward choosing perishable items may be unconscious. The shoppers I saw with non-perishable items were largely in military uniforms and likely from nearby Fort Campbell. It has been suggested by some that when a person is seeking and competing for non-perishable items the unconscious drive is more driven by ideas that the crisis/storm event could be a longer term event. In a long term event perishables would quickly become useless. It is quite possible that individuals trained in the military are not functioning at an unconscious level as much as they are relying on a better awareness of what would help if they were stranded in their homes for multiple days.
While observing the aforementioned behaviors and patterns, a loud verbal argument began between two customers waiting in line. The two individuals seemed to be arguing because they felt the other had cut in front of them in line. A baseline sense of competition was already heightened and aggravated and a behavior that may have been met with irritation was met with aggression. The verbal conflict soon escalated into a physical fight with punches being thrown. Quickly, two uniformed military personnel came and broke up the fight. The two men in the fight were both people buying perishable goods. The military personnel both were consistent with their colleagues and had a cart full of canned goods, batteries and water. There may have been a higher level of urgency in the perishable food buyers because of the short sighted plans. They are seeking perishables to last over a short time period and then move on to the next crisis. The opposing group which had enough training to not fall into less viable crisis supplies were also those who retained order in the group as a whole.
Since the non-perishable buyers seemed so better adapted at handling uncontrollable circumstances it was curious to me that they too were out scrambling for their chosen crisis supplies literally hours before a storm. Noticing this again made me question why there was so much activity in the store. If a person is trained and prepared for disasters why did they not shop at a time when competition for goods was lower ? I think to some extent that even those who are prepared for a disaster may have been out obtaining even small items they thought they might happen to need. While people compete with one another in an outward group once back in our homes we tend to think more altruistically. If we have excess, we are more likely to share with our neighbors. The group in the store outside of their neighborhood group came to blows, but it is likely that if asked these individuals would share their perishable goods with their neighbors i.e. “can I borrow an egg.”
Overall while watching this scene unfold, my anxiety began to heighten because I thought “what if I run out of food.” Prior to entering the store I was not thinking about this at all and as I mentioned I was laughing at the “bread and milk before the snow” jokes on Facebook. I am not from the area and maybe the rest of the group who is established here should be followed. The thought seemed even more valid when I gauged the intensity of the group. I began to doubt my ability to make decisions as an individual. The group must know something I don’t. It was a hard conscious effort to resist getting a cart and grabbing a just a couple items, just in case they were needed. I took pause and thought about how our home is likely more prepared for disaster than average since I lived in an Earthquake area prior to TN. Shopping before an Earthquake is simply not an option so the whole paradigm for preparation is different. I was quite struck by the anxiety that rose up when watching the group and then a mental accounting for the supplies I knew I had on hand. Despite knowing that I was well supplied I literally fought an urge to get in the long lines with the rest of the group.
This trip on a basic errand transformed into an incredible, unplanned, observational experience of Social Psychology. I still after leaving the store have a pull toward thinking the group knows better than me even though I am certain that I have at least three weeks of emergency supplies, which are more substantial than bread and milk. Let’s just hope that I am prepared enough for the upcoming winter storm and that my effort against joining the group on this occasion will not backfire.
Dove, L (2015).Why do people buy up all the bread and milk before a storm hits: The psychology of stockpiling. http://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/buy-bread-and-milk-before-storm1.htm
Nelson, Lowry, (1948). Rural sociology. American sociology series, (pp. 149-171). New York, NY, US: American Book Company, xvi, 567 pp.
Rain Blohm, MS
WKPIC Doctoral Intern