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Coronavirus: 11 psychological reasons why we hoard toilet paper in a crisis

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages, frantic shoppers everywhere are stocking up for the long road ahead. Canned goods, hand sanitizer, cleaning products, bottled water are all hot-ticket items.

But there is perhaps nothing in so high demand as toilet paper.

Turns out the sudden, desperate need to have ALL THE TOILET PAPER regardless of actual need is one of the unlikely consequences of the very things that make humans human.

To discover why we tend to hoard a product we don't actually need to survive in tough times, Inverse spoke to seven experts from across the fields of marketing and business, psychology and sociology, and consumer behavior.

“Even though digestive issues do not seem to be linked to COVID-19, remember that people are not always rational."

Here are the 11 reasons why humans the world over panic-buy toilet roll in a crisis.

11. It’s perceived as a basic necessity

Turns out toilet paper tends to be among the first things people feel they need in case of danger, or confinement.

“Toilet paper is strongly associated with “basic necessities,” more so than tissue paper or shampoo, for example," Ayelet Fishbach, professor of behavioral science and marketing at Chicago Booth University, tells Inverse.

"When people get the memo that they should stock up on necessities, toilet paper is going to be one of the first things that comes to their mind."

That ranks it up there with food and water, Fishbach explains.

10. Humans fear the unknown

Fear of the unknown is one of the greatest drivers for panic.

As Gerald Keush, professor of medicine and international health at Boston University, tells Inverse, part of the reason why we get ourselves worked up in these situations is our fault. The narratives we have around pandemics — whether from Hollywood films or popular literature — tend to depict disaster, death, and devastation.

These are “unrealistic, full of errors and disinformation, designed for the box office, and not to convey information," Keush says. But as inaccurate as they may be, these stories have a pernicious effect on our ability to cope with unknowns.

“There is always fear including fear of the unknown when something like this outbreak happens,” Keush says. Part of the problem, at least in the United States, also stems from the lack of a solid, factual narrative alternative, he says.

“It is also happening because leadership at the very top of the US government has been so incredibly bad, biased, and empty of believable messages.”

9. We need a sense of control

Hoarding can be a means of exerting control.

“Even though digestive issues do not seem to be linked to COVID-19, remember that people are not always rational,” Patricia Huddleston, professor of retailing at Michigan University, tells Inverse.

“People are scared, and when there is fear, we try to exert some control over our environment. Making sure that we have enough of a basic necessity is one way to calm fear and exert control," she says.

8. Toilet paper is symbolic

“In North America, there wasn’t much concern about the virus. People didn’t see much chance of it happening to them nor did they see the consequences as troublesome,” Ronald Mackerville, professor of recreation and leisure studies at University of Waterloo, says.

“Then people started posting images of shoppers at Costco, etc, stocking up on toilet paper. It became the symbol of what was to come.”

In combination with images of people in China being isolated in their homes on short notice, these messages hit home, he explains.

“If social media had focused instead on images of lines at gas stations, or empty shelves of canned goods, or coolers emptied of dairy products, we might have seen very different behavior," he says.

7. It provides a sense of hygiene

According to medicine professor Keush, it’s because the message of how to actually get rid of the virus is mangled, therefore people just resort to hygiene overall.

“What is important is hand hygiene, and maybe that message is being confused with the fear that there won’t be any toilet paper. The thinking might be how can I maintain hand hygiene if I run out of toilet paper,” Keush tells Inverse.

6. We anticipate others' behavior

“People hoard because they anticipate that others will anticipate a shortage and therefore will hoard,” Fishbach explains.

“And so, even if I don’t anticipate a shortage, if I anticipate that you anticipate a shortage, I should buy some extra rolls. I can even anticipate that you anticipate that someone anticipates there will be a shortage, and I would still buy some extra rolls.”

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Fishbach says.

“You call it hoarding, as do others, but it's just buying enough to last."

5. FOMO

Basically, there is "a fear of missing out,Sylvain Senecal, professor of marketing at HEC Montreal University, tells Inverse.

“If media reports that people are stocking up on toilet paper, [others] will be motivated to do the same even if they cannot objectively explain why they do so.”

Although this behavior isn’t rational, once it starts, people buy more than they need because they fear a shortage later. As a result, shortages occur because people buy more than they need, Huddleston explains. It is yet another self-fulfilling prophecy, known as the "scarcity effect."

The current rush on toilet roll is a prime example of the scarcity effect in action, according to Manoj Thomas, professor of marketing at Cornell University, tells Inverse.

“The scarcity effect is a well-established phenomenon in consumer behavior, which states that perceived scarcity will increase the value of an item,” Thomas says.

4. We're suckers for potent packaging

Turns out the packaging has to do with our panic, too.

“The tendency to hoard toilet paper during this pandemic is completely irrational, triggered solely by the bulky packaging size of toilet papers,” Thomas says. “Toilet paper packs are one of the bulkiest items in a grocery store.”

The packs' bulky size have two important implications, Thomas explains.

Retailers typically have less stock of toilet paper relative to other, smaller household products, such as soaps and detergents. When 20 or 30 customers buy toilet paper, the retail shelves start looking empty, creating a visual cue of scarcity, he says.

“This observation then creates panic buying.”

3. We’re worried there is no other option

“While the US supply chains are secure and have been working, I think that there is a lack of trust in both government and business in the way that the coronavirus crisis is unfolding,” Huddleston says.

Just look at other essential hygiene items, Huddleston says.

“You asked why people are not stockpiling body wash — one reason is that there are alternatives to body wash. Bar soap for example.”

2. We look out for Number One

For a small segment of consumers, there may be a way to profit off buying up toilet roll now, Huddleston says. Although it isn't entirely ethical.

“We have seen price gouging on Amazon for things like hand sanitizer, up to $350 for a two pack, so some people may hope for a shortage and then make some sort of profit.”

1. It's cultural

Although toilet paper is in high demand in the US, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and some Asian countries, the perception of what a basic necessity is likely varies between cultures.

For example, in Italy, people have been hoarding pasta, not toilet paper.

“In Israel (where I come from) shelf-stable milk is considered a necessity,” Fishbach says. Fishbach doesn't live in Israel, however — he lives in Chicago, where the cultural norms are a little different.

“My first intuition was to buy a few cartons in case there will be a shortage. But then I remembered it’s not even a product that sells very much in Chicago, and clearly Americans aren’t going to hoard it.”

Should you buy toilet paper?

It may be irrational, but many of the experts we spoke to didn't find the drive to panic-buy toilet paper in a crisis overly strange or unusual.

"You're overthinking this,” Lee Clarke, professor of sociology at Rutgers University, tells Inverse.

“You call it hoarding, as do others, but it's just buying enough to last… who knows how long the paper is supposed to last?”

Ultimately, the empty shelves may not show the effects of hoarding — instead they show inadequate supplies, he says.

When Inverse asked about alternatives to toilet paper, like showering or using a bidet, Clarke explains why these options don't make the cut for the majority of people used to wiping.

“One could shower every time, but people are trying to maintain some sense of normalcy and women don't normally shower after every urination," Clarke says.

"One might shower after every defecation, but I doubt most people do that, though it's true I don't have data on shitting after showering, and it can't be good for the plumbing.”

“They never show this problem in, say, The Walking Dead, but those people would stink to high heaven if they were real.”