The Real World


May 2012  The Psychologist, 25 (5), 332.

What did you do in the Great Tanker Strike? As soon as Francis Maude told you not to panic, did you go out and immediately panic?  Did you fill your car and everything else you could with petrol?

Certainly the media suggested that there was 'pandemonium at the pumps' and that the public response had created a problem that wasn't there. From mad mobs last August to a panicky public in March, doesn't this just demonstrate the irrationality of the masses?

Well no, it doesn't. If anything, it demonstrates just the opposite.

First of all, as Hardin argued in a famous Science article in 1968, where people pursue unbridled individual self-interest they will destroy collective resources — what he called 'the tragedy of the commons'.  By contrast, as a wealth of recent research has shown, when people think of themselves on a collective level, then they characteristically help each other, support each other and coordinate their behaviour with others. Whereas I might moderate my appetites for the sake of 'us' I am less likely to do it for 'you'.  In other words, shortages of petrol and other communal resources are due to too little group psychology, not too much.

In this respect the government intervention was far from helpful. Amongst the many things one might say about Francis Maude's advice,  it was notable for being posed entirely at people as individual consumers: it was entirely about 'you' rather than 'we', it was about personal need rather than communal priorities, it sought to influence behaviour by reference to individual interests rather than social norms. It set neighbour against neighbour rather than brought them together. It implied that if you don't buy up petrol it will soon be sitting in next door’s garage...

And that raises a second point. It the context of all that was said, what people then actually did could hardly be characterised as 'panic' in the sense of an emotional and thoughtless reflex. If you believe that everyone else is going to do something irrational (like buy petrol even when they don't need to), then it makes perfect sense for you to do likewise. If there is to be a long queue at the pumps, you cannot afford to be last.

So, joining the queue is not an emotional response or a wild impulse. It is a perfectly sensible calculation in the circumstances. As so often, what affects our behaviour is less what we think ourselves (there is no crisis) than what we think others think (they all think there is a crisis).  It could be that our belief concerning others thoughts is wrong, but it is not irrational. 

That then raises the question of how we find out about other minds.  Well certainly, in interpersonal interaction and in small groups we may glean information from these others themselves.  But when it comes to larger communities such as one’s town or even nation (what Benedict Anderson called an 'imagined community') we are dependent on what leaders tell us and what the media show us. 

As far as the media are concerned, a crisis always demands more space than ordinary life. A petrol station with long queues is interesting whereas a petrol station without is not. And so there is an 'availability bias' which makes the rush to the pumps seem more prevalent than it actually is. When incompetent politicians reinforce the same perception, the problem deepens. And when we layer on top a widespread cultural belief in collective irrationality and mass panic then you have the perfect storm.

So certainly, let's point a finger at the media. Let us point a finger at the Government. But let us also look to ourselves as peddlers of beliefs that create the very phenomena they purport merely to describe.