On Facebook a few days ago, a friend posted that there was no toilet paper anywhere in the town where I live. She listed the big box stores she had visited.
I wasn’t worried. My nearest supermarket always has plenty. I put toilet paper on my grocery list and went there the next day. The entire aisle devoted to toilet paper was completely empty. At the checkout line, a sign was posted warning that customers would be limited to only a certain number of particular products.
It was a lot worse elsewhere. In a store in Sydney, a security guard was hired to patrol the toilet paper aisle. Overkill? Well, in Hong Kong, thieves held up a supermarket in order to get to the toilet paper delivery truck.
Is There a Shortage of Toilet Paper in the U.S.?
If it were true that toilet paper was scarce (in the example of the U.S.), or that it was about to become scarce, then hoarding it would make some sense. On the average, each person in the U.S. uses 100 rolls of toilet paper in a year. That’s one roll every 3.65 days. And there are more than 329 million people in the U.S. today. That adds up to a demand for more than 3 billion rolls of toilet paper a year.
Typically, there is no problem meeting that demand. Companies easily supply enough. Potential disruptions overseas are unlikely to present a problem because the U.S. imports less than 10% of its toilet paper. Problems at home would need to be widespread before they would wipe out all the supply of this product, because nearly 150 companies manufacture toilet paper.
Maybe people are worried that they could be stuck at home, either because they are hesitant to go out in public or they have been instructed to stay in. But that doesn’t explain the widespread hoarding, either, because home delivery is so accessible in so many places.
When people stockpile more toilet paper than they could possibly need in the near future, they are adding to the risk that other people will not be able to find what they really do need at the moment. And when the practice of stockpiling results in inflated prices, that can be especially challenging for people who are already economically vulnerable, and even more so now that people are getting laid off or having their hours reduced.
What is the Psychology Behind the Hoarding of Toilet Paper?
Other people are hoarding, unwittingly setting an example to be imitated.
When I put toilet paper on my shopping list, I didn’t need it yet. I saw that Facebook post about the shortages in my area and thought I should start looking.
Images are suggesting scarcity.
Articles, blog posts, and videos often include images of empty shelves where the toilet paper used to be. When I got to that aisle of my supermarket, that’s what I saw. I didn’t know that there was no real shortage, and that supplies would probably be replenished soon, until I got home and did some research.
People are worried and they want to do something.
So much about the coronavirus and its spread is out of our control. The changes in the world and in our personal lives, and the threats to our health and well-being, can make us feel stressed and fearful. We want to do something, to restore some sense of control, and stocking up on toilet paper is one option. It can add a sliver of security in insecure times.
Research on decision-making has documented a “zero risk bias.” People like the idea of eliminating one category of risk entirely, even if it is something as superficial as running out of toilet paper. People can get complete control over that one little thing in their lives. They can feel like they are doing something.
Toilet paper has some particularly attractive qualities as an object of hoarding.
The psychological concerns that motivate people to stockpile toilet paper could, in theory, be assuaged by hoarding other kinds of items. Why toilet paper?
Toilet paper isn’t perishable. It will be there for you when you need it, and no matter how long that takes, you will eventually need it. You aren’t really wasting your money. It is relatively inexpensive, too. And because it is a product that takes up so much space, you probably don’t have a lot of it stocked up already.
In a pinch, toilet paper can be used as a substitute for tissues. That can seem relevant and appealing when the threat of contracting coronavirus is in the air. In contrast, we don’t seem nearly so comfortable using other products, such as tissues or paper towels, as substitutes for toilet paper.
Messaging around the coronavirus is all about hygiene and cleanliness: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, don’t get too close to other people and their germs. Toilet paper is about hygiene and cleanliness, too, in ways people are a bit more reluctant to discuss. No need to talk about it. Just fill your shopping cart, and maybe you will feel a little cleaner, more comfortable, and more secure. This is about the psychology of stockpiling toilet paper, not the reality of what you actually need and what will in fact protect you.