Why do people buy up all the bread and milk before a storm hits?

The Psychology of Stockpiling

Rain, sleet or snow, there's milk in the refrigerator and bread in the basket. This may sound a bit like the delivery mantra of the U.S. mail service, but it's actually the tactic most Americans employ during severe weather. And this behavior offers clues as to the motivations driving them.

The compulsive desire to stockpile perishables isn't always based on logical behavior. "The thought to get milk before a storm is followed by the action or compulsion to go out and stockpile it. In one way or another, we spend a lot of time and energy trying to feel in control, and buying things you might throw out still gives the person a sense of control in an uncontrollable situation," says Lisa Brateman, a New York City-based psychotherapist.

In contrast, filling your cart with cans of beans and tuna -- or any selection of non-perishables -- sends the message that you expect the storm to keep you homebound for an extended period. Although practical, non-perishables are a psychological admission that you've surrendered to waiting out the storm and its aftermath; perishables are about optimism.

"Buying perishables is like saying, 'the storm will be over soon and I won't be stuck in this situation for long,'" says Judy Rosenberg, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles.

The internal motivation for filling the refrigerator with perishable items may have another root as well. "We are all in the habit of buying perishables like milk and eggs," Rosenberg says, adding that few people easily change their routine, even though it no longer makes logical sense to follow the same course of action. "We all like the feeling of normal routine. Buying perishables and doing the 'normal routine' makes us feel safe and comfortable, even though circumstances are dangerous."

There's also the possibility that we hope to help others with our stockpile. These altruistic tendencies may cause us to have excess on hand, just in case others need it. "If we have plenty on hand and others didn't have time to shop, at least we can offer them food while they weather the storm," Rosenberg says.

So instead of buying bread and milk, what should we be doing?