Gas shortage panic fed by ‘social validation’ - East Valley Tribune: News

Gas shortage panic fed by ‘social validation’

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Posted: Friday, January 9, 2004 8:47 am | Updated: 4:25 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Frenzied gasoline buyers acting on a rumor of potential shortages Wednesday were just doing what comes naturally to human beings, an East Valley psychology expert said.

"A basic psychological principle is social validation," said Arizona State University psychology professor Robert Cialdini. "Essentially, it’s a shortcut we can use to make good decisions. If a lot of people like us are doing something, it’s probably the right thing to do."

The rumor that a Kinder Morgan Energy Partners pipeline had ruptured turned out to be false, but not before building up a critical mass of believers who joined long lines of vehicles at some Valley gas stations. Part of the problem was that people are probably on edge over national security issues and still antsy from the four- day shortage Valley motorists experienced in August, Cialdini said.

During the summer gas crunch, topping off gasoline tanks might have been good for any particular person who needed gas. To decide otherwise might have meant going without gasoline if all the pumps ran dry, Cialdini said.

Officials said Thursday they don’t know how the pipeline rumor started. Jeanine L’Ecuyer, a spokeswoman for Gov. Janet Napolitano, said the Arizona Department of Public Safety is looking into it. However, DPS spokesman Frank Valenzuela said the agency has received no request to investigate the rumor’s origin.

Kinder Morgan spokesman Jay Thorne said the company would like to know how the rumor began, but "we’re certainly not forming a posse."

A "cryptic" phone call came in to the newsroom of KPHOTV (Channel 5) on Saturday saying people should gas up immediately because of a pipeline problem, said Elizabeth Driscoll, KPHO assistant news director. The station never reported the tip because it could not be confirmed, Driscoll said. The rumor spread like wildfire through word of mouth, radio stations and chatter on police and CB radios.

By 9 p.m., the Chevron station on Via Linda Drive and Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard in Scottsdale had a line for gas extending into the street and "everybody was panicking," said employee Arash Bahri.

"If I was them . . . I would do the same thing," Bahri said. "I have to drive 20 miles each way to go to work. Just imagine how it would be without gas."

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