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Why Are These 4 Reactions to COVID-19 So Common?

May 7, 2020
Professor Kelly Goldsmith explores the psychology behind four behavior patterns that have emerged during the coronavirus pandemic

By Jong Eun Jung

Kelly Goldsmith

Kelly Goldsmith, Associate Professor of Marketing

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., consumers have seen a lack of items in the grocery stores: food, Clorox, toilet paper. People are buying in bulk because they are uncertain about the future. Kelly Goldsmith, Associate Professor of Marketing at Vanderbilt Business School, says these behaviors are rooted in both the economy and psychology. “People are making sure their own basic needs are taken care of. And unfortunately, there’s a lot of uncertainty around how much we need for our basic needs to be taken care of. And I think when you get consumers in that context, you do get a lot of this, quote, self-protective hoarding behavior,” she said.

Goldsmith, whose research interests include scarcity and uncertainty, says that the coronavirus pandemic has caused four specific types of behavior to come to the forefront in different people — self interest, altruism, self protection, and maximization — and that each of these behaviors is tied to a very specific motivation.

Self-Interested Behavior

When people feel like their access to everyday items is threatened, they respond with self-interested behaviors. Goldsmith says this is a rational behavior because individual people are benefiting from trying to take care of themselves, although it comes at the expense of the community as a whole. This can be in the self-oriented behavior in the grocery stores and drugstores. “I don’t think people are malicious. I don’t think they’re trying to hurt their neighbors. I don’t think they’d be happier. It’s just that people want to secure their own health and safety first,” Goldsmith said.


Although the pandemic has led to self-interested behaviors, it has also resulted in a lot of altruism. Healthcare providers have put their own health at risk by treating patients with the virus, and ordinary people have shown altruistic behaviors in their daily lives as well. “If you look on Twitter all over social media, people are doing things to keep each other engaged and entertained, and there’s plenty of heartwarming stories. And so I think, although we’re seeing evidence of selfish behavior in the grocery store and the drugstore, I think we’re also seeing plenty of evidence of the good side of people,” Goldsmith said.

Self-Protective Behaviors

Everyone is trying to compensate for coronavirus, and in some cases that can take maladaptive forms such as binge eating and marathoning Netflix all day. But Goldsmith says that the coping behaviors people turn to aren’t always negative. “We’ve seen behavior like people really trying hard to use this time to become their best selves — so learn a new instrument, learn a new language, chat with friends online, set up daily FaceTime with their parents,” she said. “So I definitely don’t think it’s all bad in terms of how consumers are responding to the threat that this pandemic poses.”

Maximizing Mindset

Goldsmith believes that when people eventually go back to work or find new jobs, they will adopt a maximizing mindset as they try to figure out how to get what is the best for themselves in their daily decisions. This phenomenon can lead to negative consequences. “It oftentimes will mean people are going to hold themselves to a very high standard — they’re going to try to be their best selves to get the best job. Sometimes that takes negative forms, right? Like you’re pushing other people out of the way, you might see more people cheating to try to get ahead. But that’s what happens. Unfortunately, that’s one of the negative consequences of scarcity,” she said.

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