As the novel coronavirus infection developed into a global crisis, a false rumor spread in Japan that “we are going to run out of toilet paper because of the corona crisis.” The rumor instantly spread through social media and people swarmed to supermarkets and drugstores to stock up on toilet paper causing a bit of a panic.
Why do these rumors emerge, and why do people fall into a panic? If we are to win this long fight against the coronavirus, we need to have information literacy to keep ourselves from being influenced by rumors and lies.
False rumors are born from ‘good intentions’ and are associated with ‘important but ambiguous’ things
Panic buying of toilet paper very much like the recent one occurred about half a century ago during the oil crisis in 1973. It makes us wonder if we Japanese are by nature prone to be manipulated by rumors of toilet paper shortage, but according to the news, similar panic buying occurred in other countries including Australia, US, UK and Singapore. What is the human psychology behind this kind of panic buying?
Professor Tatsuya Sato of the College of Comprehensive Psychology, Ritsumeikan University, who studies the background and how false rumors and panic behavior are born, points out that false rumors are born in association with important and ambiguous things in life.
“Toilet paper is essential for anyone who uses a flush toilet. If you flush other paper, you’ll get a clogged toilet, which is something everyone would want to avoid. If we were going to have food shortage, it would be a matter of life and death and the government would most likely intervene to ensure fair and equal distribution of food. Toilet paper, however, is basically something we procure on our own at household levels. When you come across even ambiguous information that ‘there may be a shortage’ you would want to secure some for yourself.
The other factor behind the spread of false rumors is good intention. Rumors are easily passed on from one person to another when they stem from good intentions. People would pass on information to their friends and family saying ‘I saw them selling toilet paper at that shop, why don’t you go and grab a few packages while there are some left? ’ out of good intention, and this will eventually take the form of a hoarding panic,” says Professor Sato.
Important, ambiguous, and stemming from kindness to others… Toilet paper seems to combine multiple factors likely to invite rumors.
Panics spread when there is a chance of one’s fear coming true or options to choose from
Another psychological effect that Professor Sato draws attention to is the effect of ”self-fulfilling prophecy”. Self-fulfilling prophecy refers to a phenomenon when a prediction, even if it was merely a groundless rumor, comes true as a result of people acting based on belief that it will. In fact, the groundless rumor of “toilet paper shortage” did come true, because people who were influenced by the rumor rushed to hoard toilet paper rolls which rapidly disappeared from the store shelves. This made the rumor look more believable causing a near-panic situation in some people.
Professor Sato points out that panics are triggered when there is a chance of one’s fear coming true or options to choose from
“For instance, when an airplane has some kind of a trouble while in the air, the passengers cannot possibly escape, so no one will rush to the exit. When an airplane makes an emergency landing on the sea, however, people may race to the exit causing a panic. I’ve heard that the panic was avoided thanks to the cabin attendant’s timely announcement that everyone will be all right as long as they stay calm and get off the plane in an orderly manner.”
In the case of the toilet paper hoarding, the panic spread all the more because there was supply in the market and people had the choice of actually stockpiling. On the other hand, in the case of face masks, hoarding did not grow into a panic, the supply was cut off and people were well aware that masks weren’t available.
Take a pause and check before spreading information to others
Then, what should we do to prevent being influenced by false rumors or spreading them? The first thing to do is to pause for a moment and think whether the information is true or not.
False rumors are carried by people and often spread out of ‘good intentions.’ The widespread use of social media has accelerated the speed at which rumors propagate, but the very principle that rumors are spread by people has not changed. What has changed is related to evaluation of the credibility of information. In the past, most people would obtain information from newspapers and TV, but today, there are a lot more choices of information sources including the Internet and social media. The diversification of information media has made it difficult to evaluate the credibility of information.
“We need to reassess the reliability and credibility of the media we access in our daily lives and establish our own criteria for determining the credibility of information and identify which media we can trust”.
Each one of us is required to improve our information literacy, which will help minimize any confusion of information regarding the novel coronavirus.
‘Accurate, concrete and detailed information’ prevents panic
Meanwhile, the media and others who provide information must make further efforts to eliminate ambiguity, suggests Professor Sato.
“A run on a bank is triggered by a sense of ambiguity or anxiety that the bank may be running out of funding. If the bank has no funding problems, all it has to do to resolve the ambiguity is to explicitly show that it has plenty of cash.
There are possibilities that more rumors and lies may spread in the future in relation to the novel coronavirus, but the situation will only worsen by hiding or concealing information in fear of causing a panic. Both the government and media must do their best to disclose information as accurately and in detail as possible.”
Fortunately, the toilet paper hoarding panic was composed at a relatively early stage, owing to the repeated media announcement assuring people that there was plenty of supply. It was an exemplary case of how a panic can be overcome by quickly conveying accurate and concrete information. Not to withhold information and ensuring transparency are very important not only for the media but also in government communication strategy.
The accuracy and honesty of the providers of information and the capability of the recipients to determine the credibility of information are the two wheels of sound communication. A sincere attitude is required on both sides of information communication in order for us to avoid any panic in relation to the novel coronavirus situation.