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

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder