Panic buying © Getty

Bizarre ‘alien simulation’ behavioural study shows how COVID-19 panic buying was natural human response

New research from the University of New South Wales has demonstrated how people respond differently to gradual and drastic change.

Panic buying: it’s rarely helpful, often damaging and always divisive. But it also might be a natural human response to sudden uncertainty, rather than just a jerk move.

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At least, that’s what’s suggested by an intriguing new Journal of Experimental Psychology study comparing people’s responses to rapid and gradual changes.

To examine this issue, researchers enlisted the help of a pair of aliens. Well, not real aliens. In a virtual simulation, 35 participants were tasked with attaining as much ‘alien dollars’ as possible by selling a selection of chemicals to one of two extra-terrestrials.

In each ‘sale round’, participants had to pick two chemicals before choosing which alien to sell to. However, unknown to the humans, only one of these chemicals would determine how much the selected extra-terrestrial would pay.

Over a few rounds, participants quickly learned the combination of chemicals and alien that would earn the most money (up to $15) per sale.

However, midway through the experiment, the reward pattern secretly changed: participants who used their usual winning combination were given a random payout (between $8 and $22). Immediately, they started trying vastly different strategies.

“As soon as we added an element of uncertainty, the participants started looking for new ways to complete the task,” said Dr Adrian Walker, a psychologist from the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

“The kicker is that in all cases, the best thing they could do was use their old strategy.”

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But here’s the crucial part: when the level of randomness was introduced slowly over the course of several rounds (from $14 to $16, then $13 and $17, and finally $8 to $22), a different group of 35 participants didn’t radically change their tactics.

“The participants’ behaviour didn’t change dramatically, even though the uncertainty eventually reached the same levels as in the first experiment,” said Walker.

“When uncertainty was introduced gradually, people were able to maintain their old strategies.”

Walker sees this experiment as further evidence of ‘boiling frog syndrome’, where humans only tend to alter their behaviour in the face of sudden change ­– think panic-buying in a pandemic – but not when faced with slow-moving but more serious issues.

“We can see this pattern in a lot of real-world challenges, like the climate change crisis,” Walker said.

“When change is slow and barely noticeable, there’s no sudden prompt to change our behaviour, and so we hold to old behaviours.

“Trying to get action on climate change is a lot like the boiling frog fable. If you put a frog in a pot and boil the water, it won’t notice the threat because the water is warming gradually. When it finally notices, it is too late to jump out.”

He added: “While this study isn’t the whole picture for human behaviour during the pandemic, it can help explain why so many people looked for new ways to add certainty to their lives.”

It’s hoped that this research could help develop a computational model that predicts what degree of uncertainty could spur human behavioural change.

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“Given how many decisions we make under uncertainty in our everyday lives, the more we can understand how these decisions are made, the more we hope to enable people to make good decisions,” said Walker.