The real reason people are panic-buying toilet paper

The New York Post reported that it has triggered fistfights in supermarket aisles in Australia, where one family inadvertently contributed to the crisis by ordering 48 boxes of toilet paper instead of 48 rolls — roughly 12 years' worth (via ABC). The BBC reported on an audacious armed robbery at dawn in Hong Kong. And in Japan (where sophisticated bidets are a thing), Sora News said that one shopkeeper decided the only way to protect his restroom from desperate toilet paper thieves was to draw up traditional curses to protect his stash of spare loo rolls... and in case you're wondering, the curses read "hunger" and "evil" with three painted evil eyes. 

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 Nitika 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

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 by any proven or actual need for more toilet paper. Clinical psychologist Steven Taylor explained to 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 that they're 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 said. In Ireland, shoppers admitted to The Irish Times that all the panic-buying was "mad," but they were doing it anyway.

Researchers at INSEAD Singapore, where the city's toilet paper supplies were compromised early on in the crisis, said the panic-buying there was also driven by an element of retail therapy; except instead of spending money on the latest gadgets and fashion, folks bought useful items as shopping for those things reinforced their sense of control over the crisis.

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 their 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. "The fact that there are no official promises might increase those probabilities."

More than anything else, there is a need to have a sense of control over a situation whose outcome no one can currently predict, and buying toilet paper could be one 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.

But for some folks who think a lockdown is imminent, the fact that they went all out to build their toilet paper stash was totally worth it. Frank Farley, former president of the American Psychological Association told CNN: "[The novel coronavirus] is engendering a sort of survivalist psychology, where we must live as much as possible at home and thus must 'stock up' on essentials, and that certainly includes toilet paper. After all, if we run out of [toilet paper], what do we replace it with?"