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In the past week in Britain – it seems to have settled down somewhat: for the moment anyway – there has been panic buying of fuel by the public in the light of a possible strike action by fuel tanker drivers (and even if there had been a strike declared there would have been a legally required 7-day notice period before action).

How is it then Britons panicked?

It’s all to do with what psychology calls ‘loss aversion’. Actually, it’s ‘future regret avoidance’ that might more accurately describe it. Since both terms seem laden with jargon!, I will explain what is occurring in our heads.

We have two minds: a conscious mind and an unconscious mind. The conscious mind makes rational decisions, it calculates and it reasons. The unconscious mind controls the millions of chemical and biological actions taking place in our bodies, it constantly monitors the environment to keep us safe and it governs emotions. The two parts of the brain are pretty much in constant communication with each other and the unconscious will stir us to action if we need to wake up in the event of a fire: the fight or flight condition.

What many of us don’t realise is the enormous influence and often greater power that our unconscious mind can have over the conscious mind. The unconscious mind can easily govern our actions leaving the conscious mind asking the question: ‘Why did I do that?!

The survival instinct is at our core and while I personally don’t believe in an evolutionally development for humans from anything I do hold strongly that one of the key roles of the unconscious mind is to keep us safe. It’s rather like a yapping 6-month puppy though. Everything’s a risk, everything’s a danger, everything’s to be investigated. We must fight or flight and stand ready for action at every opportunity.

The rational part of the brain scoffs at such ridiculous notions (and so does every onlooker when commenting from afar on those engaged in panic buying) but unless we’re careful and calm our state the unconscious mind is allowed to dominate and chaos can ensue.

How does this fit in then with ‘future regret avoidance’? The unconscious mind creates and dominates the view in us that we won’t be able to bear the thought – in the future – of being deprived of something and so must have it now. The feelings of ‘future regret’ in not having the fuel when we might need it is sufficient for us to insist on having it now. The ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ approach goes out of the window and we will do anything that we can to avoid the regret in the future.

Bravo, to all those people who didn’t go out and ‘top up’, let alone ‘jerry can’. That shows that you have a strong control of your unconscious mind (or you just couldn’t be bothered!). Perhaps though, ask yourself if you’ve ever found your emotions in other ways dominating how you behaved: impulse buying is a classic example of this, known only too well by sales people. (I wrote a previous post entitled How come I bought that? Click on the link here to read it.) If we’re honest we have all reacted on the basis of emotion at some stage and not solely reacted on the basis of deduction and reason.

This week has slowly seen garages returning to normal levels of demand from customers. If, and I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen, the tanker drivers go on strike you will see panic buying on an enormous scale. It’s little comfort, especially if you’re run out of fuel and need some, but at least now you’ll know the psychology behind the panic buying. I wouldn’t advise going up to the driver and telling them that ‘future regret avoidance’ is a symptom of an uncontrolled unconscious mind and that rational thought and calmness would help alleviate that condition! If you do, prepare to duck!

Image used courtesy of Matt

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