Why do we panic when things fall short?

Imagine reading news headlines warning of bread shortages due to a poor harvest globally.

Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet, but how would you react?

We have all tasted the shortage since the Covid pandemic, and it hasn’t been a laughing stock.

And there’s something about food in particular that triggers deep-seated emotions and reactions. Perhaps this comes as no surprise – a species that ignored a lack of food is unlikely to perform very well.

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The rational answer to the hypothetical bread crunch may be to keep up with your normal shopping habits, partly to avoid what Swansea University psychology lecturer Simon Williams calls a “self-fulfilling prophecy”—in other words the people of the store. And shortages are being warned.

The response to fuel delivery bottlenecks early last autumn was a case in point. The issue of driver shortages became a product problem as enough people filled their tanks to leave many petrol stations dry. It felt like irrational behavior.

But, after a certain period of time, perhaps people were acting rationally to avoid being stuck without personal transport, who knew how long?

Other shortages pre-dated or punctuated over the past two years, such as semiconductors, dry goods – in short – such as pasta, carbon dioxide needed in the food and beverage industry, and building materials such as wood.

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COVID spawned a series of experiments that could never have been conducted in normal times: how to prioritize healthcare in the face of a new virus; How to keep the economy running when millions were unable to work; And how do people react when there is a shortage.

All this has been new territory, except for those who experienced the hardest-hit period of wartime rationing and the energy crisis of the 1970s.

Researchers could hardly pull toilet rolls, rice and flour out of the supermarket and see what happened next, as much as they might like in the name of science.

0 simon
Dr Simon Williams, Professor of Psychology at Swansea University

Plus, we’ve become more aware of how goods move.

Chris Yarsley, policy manager at trade body Logistics UK, said: “One of the biggest victories has been the public recognition of supply chains.

“When you saw the lorry on the street you used to say, ‘Get out of my way.’ Now people really understand why they’re there.”

Dr Williams of Swansea University said he believes people will look beyond storage to the role of toilets in the early weeks of the pandemic when reflecting on COVID in the future.

“In those early months people were sharing stuff or dropping stuff at people’s doors,” he said.

“I think there’s a generational aspect to it. Older people who remember World War II or its aftermath, or past discussions about pandemics, are given a sense of perspective.

“They think, ‘Let’s ration our stuff instead of stockpiling.’ I think a lot of people did that.”

He added: “I think there is a psychological fear of scarcity, even though we were never going to starve.”

1 Empty Shelves Amid Supply Chain Disruptions Across UK
Empty shelves in Cardiff amid supply chain issues last year

An article published in the journal The Psychologist shortly after the pandemic hit argued that people generally do not act irrationally in crises.

It said: “While some may act selfishly, many people behave in an orderly and measured manner that is structured by social norms. They help each other, wait for each other, and they do not. not only helping family and friends but helping strangers as well.”

But it added: “However, these trends are fragile and far from inevitable.”

Dr Williams said it was “fortunate” to survive today in terms of the choice of products available. Maybe now we all appreciate it.

Some might argue that one aspect of the shortfall since 2020 has been the role of the media.

For example, widespread coverage of the petrol shortage was criticized in some circles, despite the fact that everyone was talking about it. The pictures of empty bread shelves set off some alarm.

0 Threat of tanker drivers strike sparks panic petrol buying
Motorists line up outside a petrol station in Cardiff during a fuel shortage across the UK

Asked if there is any rationale for less coverage by the media in such cases, Dr. Williams said: “The short answer is no. The media has a job to do.

“Maybe it’s about letting the media know better.”

This will help people to assess the gravity of the situation, he said.

The Psychologist’s article stated that the use of the word “terror” was harmful.

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“Stories employing the language of terror help to create the very event they are written to condemn,” it said. “They help create selfishness and competition that turns sensitive preparations into a stockpile of waste.”

It is also difficult for governments.

“There can be a counter-productive effect in asking people to do or not to do something,” Dr. Williams said.

The British government seemed reluctant to say anything about the petrol problem before finally announcing that the army would help operate the tankers.

Andrew Potter, Professor of Transport and Logistics at Cardiff University and Mr Yarsley from Logistics UK, say the main factor has been the lack of drivers since the start of 2020.

“There’s only one pool of drivers to draw from,” said Prof Potter. “As one industry recruits drivers from other industries, it creates a cascade effect.

“The numbers coming in the sector are starting to improve.”

He said that before Brexit and Covid, there was a shortage of thousands of lorry drivers in the UK, but the shortfall was anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000.

“Now it’s back to 60,000 to 80,000,” Prof Potter said. “It’s starting to get easier. Wages have gone up.”

Another problem has been a shortage of freight containers as the global economy woke up after a period of hibernation.

Empty containers were often misplaced, meaning there was less room at ports to unload full containers.

Factory productivity soared, and consumers unable to go on their usual holidays due to travel restrictions ordered physical goods such as decking, double-glazing and kitchen units. Freight costs increased.

“Then you got ships queuing up outside one port, or they went to other ports,” Prof Potter said.

To address the lorry driver shortage, Mr Yarsley said the logistics sector is working with the central government to expand driver testing capacity, improve roadside facilities and develop driver apprenticeships.

“We need to change the image of this region.

“Things that are being put in place to increase the number of drivers being recruited are beginning to improve.”

He added: “We are essentially an importing nation.”

He also said that the industry and the government need to be “agile” in predicting the roadblocks in the future.

In October last year, former Tesco chief executive Sir David Lewis was appointed as a supply chain adviser to the UK government.

The short-term role involves identifying the causes of current blockages and pre-empting the future.

Asked whether shortages were now part of the scenario, Prof Potter said: “In the short term, I think they are. Over time I think we will find an equilibrium point.”

The real products we rely on, including food, are also likely to be under pressure in the coming years – perhaps inevitability – as we continue to demand more from the world and its resources than can be provided.

Think of all the steel, batteries, and rare-earth elements needed to decarbonize our energy and transportation sectors. How do we produce enough protein for people while keeping large tracts of land and ocean separate to survive human intervention?

“Overall, around the world, wealth is increasing but resources are limited,” Prof Potter said.

“You can get into a pretty deep philosophical debate. Is it fair for us to tell the middle class in Africa that we can’t have what we have?

“It’s good for us to think a little bit more about what we use.”

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