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The original version of this blog (in French) can be found here!

‘Hurry, hurry dear!’ Oh look, there is already a lineup to get in. My god. Go! Hurry up and find a parking spot. There! Go! Run, run! Jeez, you can be slow sometimes. We’re not going to get any! Try to go in front of the girl over there! Go! Oh no! There won’t be enough left for us! Look! There’s an employee arriving with a pallet. Run, run! Take four. No, six! …..  Aaaaah. We did it my love. Phew.’

 

In the last two weeks, we’ve heard a lot about people rushing to the stores to empty out the toilet paper shelves. While many of the fruit stands and shelves for dairy products and dry food remain full, the toilet paper section was being emptied at lightning speed.

 

Different theories have been proposed to explain this strange behaviour. The most popular one is that the people living in Wuhan, where the pandemic began, were desperately short of this precious paper and that we need to prevent this from happening on our side of the planet. However, most people agree that if the people of Wuhan were out of toilet paper, it was because thousands of people rushed to the stores to buy all the remaining stock, even before they could figure out why it was so important to obtain such treasure.

 

One may believe that the toilet paper race is an event specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, that is currently sweeping the globe. However, know that the public’s interest for this soft paper in times of crisis is not new.

 

In 1973, when the United States was going through a financial crisis, rumors of a shortage of toilet paper began to circulate. Solely based on this rumor, people reacted by buying the precious product until the shelves of American supermarkets were emptied.

 

In 2013, the economic crisis then prevailing in Venezuela led to significant shortages of various products. Although there was no shortage of toilet paper, one of the first products to disappear from department stores was … toilet paper!

 

How can we explain this crazy toilet paper race in a period of crisis? Some concepts from the psychology of uncertainty can help to explain this behaviour.

 

On March 11th 2020, the World Health Organization declared that we are now facing a COVID-19 pandemic. By its very nature, the announcement of a pandemic increased unpredictability and decreased the sense of control, two of the four characteristics of stress in humans.

 

This stress response activates regions of the brain that are implicated in fear, and generates emotions in people such as worry and panic. In general, people do not enjoy these emotions and consequently, they will try to make them disappear by reducing unpredictability and increasing their feeling of control on the situation that is generating stress.

 

However, to feel as though we are gaining back control on a stressful situation, the action we’re putting in place needs to be significant and give us the impression that we’ve done something important.

 

Therefore, small gestures like hand-washing or disinfecting the TV remote control may not be perceived as significant enough to increase the sense of control and decrease the unpredictability of the situation. People will, therefore, have the impression that more meaningful and visible action need to be taken to reduce the unpredictability of the crisis and to increase a sense of control.

 

In an old study published in 1967, two researchers showed that normally, chickadees (a small bird that feeds on insects and grains), have a marked preference for foods that are small in size. However, when the chickadee is stressed by exposure to cold, this preference changes and they show a preference for foods that are larger in size (larger grains, larger insects). One of the reasons given by researchers to explain this is that it takes fewer trips to the nest to transport food that is larger in size. Thus, in times of stress, this benefit takes on great important and explains the chickadee’s change in preference.

 

Therefore, it is possible that the tendency to prefer larger objects in times of stress explains people’s strange passion for toilet paper. In fact, one of the biggest items in a food market is usually packets of toilet paper rolls. If we have a very high stress response to a crisis and have rushed to the market to buy food, it is very likely that filling your basket with 56 packets of toilet paper rolls will give you a stronger sense of ‘doing something meaningful to reduce your stress’ than filling your basket with 56 packs of spaghetti.

 

The second element that helps to explain the toilet paper rush is what researchers call the ‘Pack instinct’, which is the tendency of people (or animals) to act like the majority. While I was in South Africa last week with my son watching impalas grazing in the African savannah, it was fascinating to see how, when one member of the pack sniffed out the presence of a lion and ran north, all the impalas of the pack ran in the same direction, without even taking the time to check to see if the lion was there.

 

The same pack instinct phenomenon could explain the scramble towards toilet paper. Toilet paper packaging is one of the largest items in a food market and take up the most shelf space (sometimes even an entire aisle in the supermarket). If people start emptying the toilet paper aisle to increase their sense of control, it won’t be long before that aisle in the supermarket appears to be completely empty. You may well try to empty the caper section, however, the empty space that will remain at the end of your raid will still remain modest in comparison.

 

Now imagine walking through the aisles of the supermarket without having previously heard about the toilet paper shortage.  You turn into the caper section and see only a small empty hole.  Your mind questions this, but nothing more. Then you turn into the toilet paper section and the whole row is almost empty.  Your alarm system goes off, you wonder what’s going on (after all, you’re at the market because it’s a pandemic) and you realize it’s the toilet paper section.  Your pack instinct kicks in and you tell yourself that people know something you don’t and that you should follow their lead.  Then you rush to the last few toilet paper packages, feeling like you are doing something significant to ensure your survival and your inner alarm system calms down.

 

Today, just days after the World Health Organization announced the COVID-19 pandemic, the toilet paper shelves keep emptying because too many people have had difficulty managing their stress response to the pandemic, and have attempted to reduce this stress by following the pack instinct by filling their shopping carts with these large packages.

 

However, the decrease in stress felt by this compulsive purchase will be short-lived. I bet that by the time they got home, the stress of not knowing how to deal with the panic led to many of these people having stomach aches again (and that’s why I’ll start offering some solutions in upcoming blog posts!).

 

A large number of studies have shown that one of the best ways to reduce a stress response is to practice kindness and to do good deeds.

 

So, I invite you to share the toilet paper stock. You’ll see, your stomach ache will go away faster than if you return to the supermarket to see if there’s any of the precious paper left.

 

And by the way… I’m missing some 🙂

 

From Sonia Lupien PhD., Director of the Center for Studies on Human Stress

 

References

 Anderson, E. C., Carleton, R. N., Diefenbach, M. & Han, P. K. J. The Relationship Between Uncertainty and Affect. Frontiers in psychology 10, 2504, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02504 (2019).

Myton, B. A., Ficken, R.W. Seed-size preference in chickadees and titmice in relation to ambient temperature. The Wilson Bulletin 79 (1967).

Toilet paper scarce in 1973:  website visited on March 17th, 2020:  https://priceonomics.com/the-great-toilet-paper-scare-of-1973/

Toilet paper scarce in 2013: website visited on March 17th, 2020

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2015/02/venezuela-is-running-out-of-toilet-paper.html