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The great Toilet Paper Threat of 2020

Even before the COVID-19 disease was officially called a pandemic, many countries around the world experienced a “run” on toilet paper. DAVE WESTMAN looks at new research that helps explain why perceived threat led people to strip supermarket shelves of toilet paper.

If you stockpiled enough toilet paper rolls during isolation to build a fort for the kids, you may not be as selfish as media commentators made you out to be. Conversely, if you didn’t hoard a fort-sized stockpile, you may not be as conscientious as you might have thought.

In an incredibly timely study published earlier this month, researchers Lisa Garbe, Richard Rau, and Theo Toppe attempted to unroll the psychology behind toilet paper stockpiling behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, “Influence of perceived threat of Covid-19 and HEXACO personality traits on toilet paper stockpiling”, conducted a survey of 996 people across 22 countries in the last week of March 2020.

The key finding was that the level of perceived threat posed by the pandemic was directly related to toilet paper stockpiling behaviour.

The most surprising part of their analysis of personality traits and how they relate to stockpiling of toilet paper was that “even the most humble and moral individuals might stockpile toilet paper as long as they feel sufficiently threatened by the pandemic”.

On the HEXACO personality traits (Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and openness), two clear links emerged. Firstly, Emotionality was a good predictor for the level of perceived threat, which, in turn, was directly linked to levels of stockpiling behaviour. Secondly, those high in Conscientiousness (organisation, diligence, perfectionism and prudence) engaged in more stockpiling behaviour.

What does that all mean, though, in real-world applications? The most obvious lesson is for leaders at the government level and the supermarket chain managers wanting to maintain order and stop the fisticuffs at the checkout. Telling people how selfish they are for hoarding was not going to work. More was to gain by explaining (to the conscientious folk, in particular) that supply chains were secure.

What the research doesn’t explain is why toilet paper became the poster product for pandemic stockpiling (although it does suggest that because it did not directly relate to saving lives or jobs, toilet paper functioned as a “purely subjective symbol of safety”).

Based on zero scientific research, however, we might consider some possible influences behind the toilet paper focus. We should acknowledge that a great many products were in desperately short supply, including hand sanitiser, spaghetti, and baking goods. But of all those products, a couple of things set toilet paper apart and might influence why TP, of all the grocery items, sparked the most violent fights in the supermarkets.

Firstly, it is a modern necessity without substitutes. If you can’t bake a cake, you can eat something else (as long as something else is not cooking spaghetti). Secondly, it is one of the bulkiest items in the supermarket, limiting the quantity (number of items) that can fit on a shelf, and making it conspicuous in the trolley. Thirdly, it is the most appealing for news and social media. It is an absurdly funny item to stockpile and fight over, sparking thousands of memes on social media.

It is that last point – appealing to the media – that probably added most fuel to the fire. Once the media highlighted a potential toilet paper shortage, the threat of coronavirus was compounded by the threat of not being able to buy toilet paper. And, as the research paper points out, the stockpiling behaviour was largely driven by a perceived threat. The research pointed out that people in higher-risk categories for the disease perceived higher levels of threat and exhibited more intense stockpiling behaviour. But a shortage of toilet paper is something that affected everyone so a widespread increase in perceived threat was always going to create a vicious cycle.


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