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Snow in the forecast clears grocery store shelves of bread. But why?

Bare shelves in the bread section of grocery stores across the metro are commonplace during winter storms. [Photo by Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman Archives]
Bare shelves in the bread section of grocery stores across the metro are commonplace during winter storms. [Photo by Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman Archives]

If you are like many of your fellow Oklahomans, when a winter storm is hours away from freezing your pipes, killing your home heat and causing traffic problems, you think: I need bread. Lots of bread.

But when you finally arrive at your local grocery store, you may find the only loaves left are rye, banana or some other kind of bread you would never consider for your sandwiches or toast.

Your fellow Oklahomans got to the store before you and didn’t leave many loaves to spare.

Stephanie Preston, a behavioral neuroscientist in the University of Michigan Department of Psychology who studies the role of stress and emotions on decision processes like hoarding, consumer behavior and pro-environmentalism, explains why hoarding is a normal behavior.

“In scientific research, we think the brain evolved these basic fundamental mechanisms to respond to stress or uncertainty with hoarding of key resources,” Preston told The Oklahoman. “Especially if you feel like the supply of the key resource is unpredictable or uneven or comes at weird intervals. Many mammals will hoard resources like food.”

Preston’s thesis research was on kangaroo rats and squirrels, which she says have the same brain areas that cause people to hoard.

People typically engage in hoarding that is considered normal — the food pantry at home or savings in a bank account — but under stressful conditions, emergency decision-making responses built into our biology are triggered to ratchet up the behavior.

“Bread probably is just viewed as like a basic item you can make a lot of stuff with that will feed the family. Like, I won’t have to cook if I don’t have any power, but I can still make a peanut butter sandwich no matter what power availability I have,” Preston said.

People who have higher anxiety levels than others are prone to panic buying because higher levels of anxiety make people “self-centered in any situation, but especially when you feel like your own life and resources are at risk,” Preston said.

Maybe you’re one of those people who don’t buy several loaves of bread at once because you want to be considerate.

Research since COVID-19 shows people who “have more empathy or compassion are less likely to engage in panic buying because they are thinking about the needs of other people,” Preston said.

Maybe bread isn’t your big buy before the big storm. Perhaps you head straight for the booze and sweets aisles.

"A lot of times people buy hedonic items like liquor and ice cream and cookies just because they feel stressed,” Preston said. “And again, the stress activates this response to seek rewards and comfort, so that’s all part of the same system. They don’t mention that as often in the news, but I think it’s equally popular.”

Josh Dulaney

Josh Dulaney joined The Oklahoman in November 2016. Dulaney is a California Newspaper Publishers Association award winner for his writing. In both 2018 and 2019 he earned newspaper writer of the year honors from the Great Plains Journalism Awards. Read more ›