There has been a lot of talk recently surrounding the weird run on the petrol stations that we have witnessed in the light of the non-announced strike by the tanker drivers union, Unite. People have been attempting to explain the psychology and economics of how it happened and why there was a spiral of fuel consumption in response to something that wasn’t even real.
I have heard people referring to Game Theory and the Prisoners Dilemma as helping us to understand the underlying self-interest that is intrinsic within human nature. But I don’t think the Prisoner’s Dilemma is actually very applicable in this situation because we are not talking about a zero-sum decision made by two individuals.
Rather it is a collective behaviour that on the whole people are unaware of due to the fact that many of us deny our responsibility and the fact that our actions are out of the ordinary.
With the prisoners dilemma you make a decision without the knowledge of what the other person will do – you have to second guess the behaviour of the other only knowing the OPTIONS available to you (and them). Whereas this panic buying of petrol has happened precisely because we can see the behaviour of others and because at the end of the day whether we like it or not petrol is part and parcel of the way we live. Because the behaviour has been so visible it has been perpetuated by its own existence.
There are very few people who will admit to panic buying – on the whole people who have been filling up with petrol have been doing so because they need to. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a slight levelling out over the course of a few days and that the week in general wouldn’t look massively different to an average week of fuel purchasing (just with the majority focussed on 2 or 3 days). I might be very wrong about that, but every person I have spoken to that filled up in the past few days did so because they needed to this week anyway. Obviously there are a few filling up needlessly and I’m sure people are generally trying to justify themselves, but I imagine that this will level out over the course of a month or so.
It can be problematic to start speculating about human nature and arguing that an innate self-interest is what provokes our action. We witness not human nature, but rather human behaviour, which is the result of the nature of society NOT the nature of the individual itself. The only real conclusion we can make about human nature is that there isn’t such a thing, that our perception of it is socially constructed. We have crafted a society where for most people fuel is an intrinsically vital part of what we need and it is up to us to use ‘our’ money (a socio-economic construct) in order to buy it so that we can do what is expected of us. Everyone buys petrol because everyone buys petrol. We are like sheep and most of our actions are based on this foundation. This is not the universal behaviour of humans, but it IS the behaviour of humans in our capitalist society, and one wouldn’t expect anything different. It is the basis of our ideology.
Behaviour vs. Nature
The advert for the latest Gillette razor provides a perfect nano insight into how human behaviour can be conditioned. It is a razor that allows you to shave ‘against the grain’ rather than with the grain, without doing any damage to your face. Now, on the surface this sounds like a useful feature because it makes shaving easier, safer and potentially less painful. What it also does, however is negates the need to learn how to shave properly in accordance with the natural contours of the face and the direction of hair. In using the product, while we have it our lives are apparently made easier and we learn to forget the knowledge and skill involved with shaving properly. We become reliant on it without realising. It doesn’t actually improve our lives particularly. We were able to shave perfectly effectively before, but it chips away at our previous knowledge and conditioned so we can’t do without it.
In much the same way, we allow our behaviour to be dictated by our behaviour. Our knowledge of who we are, is limited to the way that we behave, and that is precisely what the few people trying to maintain their power desire of us. Our lives are simplified so that we forget how to help each other survive – we concentrate instead on how making our own existence as comfortable as possible. It is not therefore a desire to survive that drives us but a desire to not be inconvenienced, a need to remain comfortable and to maintain the status quo of our lives. When we are backed into the corner the only thing we know how to do is to attempt to consume our way out of it. And the further we go the harder it is to turn back.
So, rather than being the result of human nature, the behaviour we have witnessed is the result of itself. Behaviour stems from behaviour. We conform to our perception of reality. The danger is we will start to believe the lies that we are told about the selfishness and calculated self-interest behind our decisions – if we do this we become this. It is the self-fulfilling prophesy. Much like the very post-modern aspect of the panic buying itself – we feared a strike that would lead to a fuel shortage so we bought petrol as if it had already happened just in case, and the very result that we feared happened because of the behaviour that stemmed from the fear despite the fact that the very stimulus we feared that would lead to the problem never even happened. The desired effect of the strike occurred without a strike even needing to take place. It is a quite profound phenomenon.
There are no simple explanations for this but under no circumstances should it be written off as simply the selfish behaviour of innately self-interested people with self-centred human nature.