“It’s Psychology, Stupid!”

Psychology has a queer property. It assumes easy malleability in times of tragedy. Fear is probably among the easiest emotions to trigger in human beings. A tragedy serves as a stimulus, setting off ripple reactions in various directions. A typical pattern follows. The initial outbreak is generally met with expert voices and government officials confident of averting a major crisis. Then as the monster begins devouring prey in increasing numbers, stoic denial gives way to frenzied disaster management. The public, meanwhile, find their own ways of combating the tragedy…

The following instances draw attention to the primary and secondary effects of a tragedy/crisis. The nomenclature is used loosely, as the choice of ‘primary’, ‘secondary’ is largely a matter of definition. Additionally, the post puts the spotlight on price action in certain goods in the after-math of a crisis. These events serve to highlight the philosophical-sounding rationality-irrationality paradigm. What is rationality?

Japan, 2011

Even as media glare and the globe’s attention is focused on the Fukushima site nuclear radiation problem, a quiet frenzy is underway in an unlikely outlet – Iodine pills.

Primary effect: Before the tragedy, the world at large had hardly heard of these two words. But Fukushima has served as a catalyst for a marvellous rally in the price of iodine pills. A 10-tablet pack that hitherto cost $10 now is bid up to $550 (and counting); a 55-fold gain in a matter of days for a pill whose utility nobody is sure about. Interestingly, demand for these pills has emerged in geographies not even remotely close to Japan.

Secondary effects are often more interesting. The limited supply of iodine pills has triggered a scramble for iodine solution that is used to treat cuts. Reports purportedly circulated in China, Hong Kong and Philippines, exhorting people to paint their neck and private parts with iodine solution. Apparently, this helps guard reproductive essentials from the penetrating gaze of nuclear radiation. Amen.

There’s a hierarchy of uncertainties at play. No one is sure if iodine is the life-saving elixir. No one is sure about death caused by the radiation. But somehow the former seems less uncertain than the latter. Would you rather pay $500 to give yourself an apparent chance of survival or do nothing and wait for who-knows-what?

Tragedy numbs the brain and as survival instincts take over, people clamour for the first exit that has some chance of keeping them alive. Never mind the rationality. Perhaps it is irrational to do nothing under the circumstances.

Swine Flu, 2009

As the pandemic spread its tentacles to other parts of the globe, tragedy stoked fear, again.

Primary effect: Tamiflu became the buzzword. The world focused on it, as the elixir that would annihilate the wretched swine flu virus. When procurement became difficult, public attention turned to something ubiquitous – the good old face mask.

Face mask sales spiked and prices followed as demand far outstripped supply. Malaysia saw a 10-fold rise and many other geographies saw prices spike 4-to-8-fold. This, despite expert voices pontificating about the uselessness of masks in keeping swine flu at bay. Experts, who?

Secondary effect: I recollect a news-piece from Russia that fed off the face mask mania. The region of Khabarovsk apparently imposed a ‘mask regime’. Anyone not wearing a mask was liable to a fine. The cost of a mask (post-levitation) was less than $1. The fine, in contrast, was ~$20! Additionally, your lax supervisor had to shell out over $100 for not monitoring you effectively. 50% of the local companies made decent collections as a result of the above scheme. Swine flu had meandered through various linkages and had helped companies conjure up novel ways of adding some top-line, the temporary nature notwithstanding. Someone, somewhere always emerges richer from a crisis.

Face masks gave people a sense of security. I confess to foolhardily refusing to wear a mask through the scare. My reasoning was, if everyone else was wearing it, I had little to fear by way of man-to-man transmission, although it still left me exposed to virulent airwaves. My bravado was probably misplaced but here I am, alive and writing…

SARS, 2003

N95 became the in-thing. Especially, once WHO put its heavy stamp of authority on the mask’s usage. Prices rose 5-fold and smuggling was rampant…

Ok, I’ll give in to temptation. I’ll round out with one example from the financial world.

Japan, 2011, triggered a rush-to-safety in the investments world. Equities and risky assets took a knock as market participants piled in to perceived risk-free havens. The Japanese Yen was a prime beneficiary. Concurrently, equity volatility (a measure of investor fear) spiked.

Fear is an interesting emotion. Human psychology manifests in fascinating ways in both the social and financial spheres. In each of the above episode, a catalyst exacerbated the effects of a stimulus, playing on the emotion of fear. This, almost always, triggers bubbly price rises in certain goods that appear to defy reason. Human being’s behaviour seems out-of-whack, but is it really so?

It’s all in the mind.


3 thoughts on ““It’s Psychology, Stupid!”

    1. Yamini: I agree. Although, I think, hand sanitisers are a rather useful accesory at all times!

      Sejal: Surat Plague was quite an episode too. But apart from my house being inundated with scared relatives fleeing from Surat, I wasn’t aware of the tetracycline story. Thank you for sharing!

  1. Loved your write-up. Also brought to mind another instance. The Surat Plague (somewhere in the 90s)–someone somewhere said ‘tetracycline is the panacea’…and within minutes all tetracycline supply dried up. At that point it did not matter that there are other broad spectrum antibiotics that would have served just as well. Secondary effect: all trains plying between Bombay and Ahmedabad would shut down at Surat station. The passengers inside the trains would barricade the doors. Human fear at its best (or worst? take your pick!). 🙂 And then the financial world feeds itself on the fears of the social world!

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