Petrol pandemonium

The government has changed its advice, but why did we panic in the first place? A psychologist expla

Any rational person in the UK who doesn't want to be left without petrol has probably topped their vehicle up recently or at least thought about doing so. After all, the people running the country, before changing their advice today, had advised drivers to do this, amid fears of a country-wide strike by tanker drivers.

When consumer behaviour changes on a mass scale in this way, the media usually work up a lather, pronouncing that the country is in the grip of "panic buying" or "mass hysteria". In fact, most drivers are behaving calmly, doing the sensible thing based on the information they've received.

The situation began a few days ago when, for political and practical purposes, the coalition government started to publicise the strike threat and talk about the contingency plans they were putting in place. The last thing any government wants is to be blamed for not planning ahead or to be accused of not giving people due warning. By putting contingencies in place and encouraging stockpiling, the coalition also presumably hoped to undermine the potential impact of a strike, thereby dissuading the tanker drivers from fulfilling their threats in the first place.

Unfortunately, the government's early announcements and warnings invoked three of the most powerful principles in the social psychology of persuasion, as outlined by the doyen of the field, Robert Cialdini, Regents' Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, in his book Influence: Science and Practice.

The first of these is "authority" - we tend to listen to people we perceive as knowledgeable or having privileged information. Despite the lousy reputation of politicians, when several members of the coalition said repeatedly that fuel could run low, many people believed them and started changing their buying habits.

Second is the "scarcity principle" - we instinctively want what we can't have and value highly that which is rare. Once people started to believe that fuel is in short supply and that it could run out, they immediately wanted it more and were willing to work harder to get it, for example by queuing or taking unplanned detours to forecourts. For other examples of this effect in action, just look at the way parents behave around Christmas time when rumours emerge that a trendy toy is due to sell out; or consider the way Concorde tickets became hot property the moment it was announced the jet would soon fly no more.

The last relevant factor is known as "social proof" or "social norms" and is perhaps the most powerful of all. Time and again research has shown that we tend to look at how other people are behaving (or how we think they're behaving) to help choose how we should behave ourselves. Take the context of binge drinking by university students, where it's been found that most undergrads massively overestimate how much their peers drink and then use this mistaken yardstick to guide their own drinking patterns.

With regard to the fuel situation, many people probably decided that they weren't too concerned and some may still feel that way. But the sight on the news of people queuing for fuel is incredibly compelling. Because it's human nature to copy each other, if we see that everyone else is filling up, we're likely to do the same. Twenty-four hour rolling news online and TV makes this factor more powerful today than ever before.

The net result of all this is that some fuel pumps around the country are running dry even though the strike may not even happen. Of course, lack of fuel in the pumps serves to fuel the news story, creating a self-perpetuating situation - though to call it hysteria or panic is hyperbole. Only now the message has been communicated from trusted sources that there's plenty of fuel, and that most people aren't stockpiling, will normal service likely be resumed.

Dr Christian Jarrett is a psychologist and author of The Rough Guide To Psychology

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John McDonnell "will never" stand for Labour leader and has a warning for rebels

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell says a rebel front bench can be replaced. 

Moments after sacked Cabinet minister Hilary Benn called for other MPs to "do the right thing", Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was telling rebel Labour MPs where to go.

McDonnell played down the risk of a coup against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, telling the BBC's Andrew Neil: "Jeremy's not going anywhere."

And he ruled himself out as a replacement candidate for leader: "Let me get this absolutely clear. I will never stand for leadership fo the Labour Party. If Jeremy has to stand again, I will chair his campaign."

He denied rumours his ally Seema Malhotra was phoning round to gather support for his candidacy and added: "Jeremy is not falling on his sword and if he did I wouldn't be standing."

McDonnell also dismissed the rumours of a Shadow Cabinet revolt, despite the news Shadow Health minister Heidi Alexander had resigned and others were expected to do so. If they left, he said, they could be replaced.

Given the growing antipathy of Labour MPs to the Corbyn leadership, this claim is rather questionable. There are only so many Labour MPs.

But McDonnell was on stronger ground when he reminded any listening Shadow Ministers of the electoral victories in by-elections and the London election. 

He said: "Every electoral test Jeremy's faced since becoming elader he's won."

And in a veiled warning to rebels, he warned: "Who is soverign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members.

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

MPs were citing polls, he said. "But who trusts polls?" 

Indeed, with events happening so rapidly, and the choice between party members and voters so stark, Labour MPs will have no time to trust anything but their instincts.