The real reason people are panic buying toilet paper

The New York Post reported that it’s triggered fistfights in supermarket aisles in Australia. The BBC reported on an audacious armed robbery at dawn in Hong Kong. All over the world news of the potentially widespread COVID-19 coronavirus infection has sent folks to supermarkets and drugstores looking to hoard essentials from face masks and hand sanitizers, to non-perishable food items like canned goods, oat milk, ramen… and toilet paper.

Shoppers in different countries were driven by different reasons for buying out toilet paper. In China, folks who had no access to surgical masks went for toilet paper because, as Australian academic Nikita Garg said, “There’s a thinking that toilet paper can be substituted for tissues and napkins and to make makeshift masks” (via BBC). In Taiwan, toilet paper flew off the shelves because there were rumors that the island’s paper stocks were being used to make surgical masks, which would subsequently affect toilet paper supplies. Authorities later had to deny that this was the case (via Taiwan News).

People are buying toilet paper as a way of dealing with their fear of the unknown

But in the case of countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia, panic-buying and the need to hold on to as much toilet paper one can carry, is most likely driven by fear of the unknown, not any proven or actual need for more toilet paper. Clinical psychologist Stephen Taylor told CNN, “When people are told something dangerous is coming, but all you need to do is wash your hands, the action doesn’t seem proportionate to the threat. Special danger needs special precautions.”

It doesn’t help that news reports showing empty shelves urge people to believe they are missing out if they don’t go out and get more toilet paper right now. “People, being social creatures, we look to each other for cues for what is safe and what is dangerous. And when you see someone in the store, panic-buying, that can cause a fear contagion effect,” Taylor says.

People feel they will need toilet paper if things get worse

People are also spurred by the idea that a community coronavirus outbreak could result quarantine or a lockdown, which will impose restrictions on freedom of movement. “Unless people have seen … official promises that everyone will be taken care of, they are left to guess at the probability of needing the extra toilet paper, sooner rather than later,” psychologist Baruch Fischhoff told CNN.

More than anything else, there is a need to have a sense of control over a situation whose outcome few, if any, can predict; and buying toilet paper could be a way of getting to grips with an unknown. “Depending on how people estimate the chances of needing the toilet paper, the hassle might be worth it,” he said. “If it gave them the feeling that they had done everything that they could, it might free them to think about other things than coronavirus,” Fischhoff said.

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