Get Regular Updates!
|The psychology of mass panic and collective calm


The psychology of mass panic and collective calm

The psychology of mass panic and collective calm

Making sense of things in a seemingly nonsensical world.

The psychology of mass panic and collective calm

You can’t eat it. You can’t drink it. And its use as a weapon is questionable. So why has everyone been freaking out and hoarding toilet paper?

And perhaps more importantly, what do we need to do to all feel a bit more calm?

Okay, maybe technically you can drink it – but you shouldn’t.

The answer lies in understanding our reactions, specifically what psychologists and sociologists call collective panic or mass psychogenic illness.

Dr Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, known for her work on courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. She describes this phenomenon most simply: “anxiety is contagious”.

And it’s why, throughout history, we see all sorts of situations where panic escalates. Even when a threat is entirely imaginary, like the Salem Witch Trials or the Great Clown Panic of 2016, it can spread like wildfire.

Unpacking collective panic

Although COVID-19 is real, the threat around the scarcity of things like hand sanitiser, 2-minute noodles and now cake mix is entirely human-created.

In some ways the panic we created was eclipsing the reality of the virus itself.

Associate Professor Melissa Norberg is the Deputy Director for the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University. Having written about the psychology of panic buying, she explains how situations like COVID-19 can escalate.

“Toilet paper and hand sanitiser are items that people may use more frequently when sick,” she says. So they use this as a way of judging what they should buy in this new unprecedented situation with COVID-19.

View Larger
Image|Getty images
TP is bulky and takes up a lot of space, so it can be hard to keep a lot of it on supermarket shelves – but that doesn’t mean there’s an actual shortage.

“This increase in acquiring behaviour then led to empty shelves, which then likely led to anxiety in another group of people,” Melissa says. “People who weren’t initially worried by the virus then became worried that certain items would not be available when they need them. This then led to more purchasing.”

This situation continues to escalate. Suddenly the news and social media are filled with photos of empty shelves and videos of insufferably long queues at the shops.

This creates another emotional contagion, which further spurs the panic buying.

“We were bombarded with information that we should be scared because products were in short supply,” says Melissa.

Achieving collective calm

So what can be done not just to preserve our sanity but make sure we all have access to all the toilet paper that we need?

The most simple thing, says Melissa, is to go on an information diet. Reduce time spent on social media and watching the news and focus more on positive stories of people helping each other.

View Larger
Image|Getty images
Now that we’ve figured out social distancing, perhaps some social media distancing should be the next step.

She also says using more positive terms to nudge our thinking to be more optimistic would help us all be more calm and think collectively.

“Using the term ‘physical distancing’ would help, as social distancing may convey, very accidentally, that we should only be concerned about our individual selves. But this is a collective problem, and working with people is what is going to see us through this pandemic,” she says.

Personally, we’ve been enjoying John Krasinski’s Some Good News

Brené’s recent podcast on anxiety also has some great tips on being more calm by being aware of our own personal style of coping with anxiety.

And here’s another thing to encourage calmness in these challenging times. Just as anxiety is a contagion, says Brené, so too is calm.

So stop and breathe. Think about what you can do to spread more calm* today.



*You might not feel calm, and we recognise this. If you’re experiencing feelings of anxiety, distress and concern in relation to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, you can visit Beyond Blue for access to support.

Particle Puns


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy

We've got chemistry. Want something physical?