Can you spare a square?
Many will remember the famous Seinfeld episode in which a TP-challenged Elaine pleaded with the woman in the adjoining stall for a little help.
When that episode (“The Stall”) aired in January 1994, few could have predicted that 25 years later a global pandemic would have people around the world doing their best Elaine impression as they beseeched store owners for a suddenly precious commodity.
If nothing else, the hoarding of toilet paper at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic proved an illuminating example of the ways in which high stress and emotions affect the processing of information about risk.
9 Reasons People Hoarded Toilet Paper
Emotion-based factors can help explain the hoarding of toilet paper and the resulting shortages. The following are nine of the most prevalent factors:
1. Personal control.
Perceptions of personal control are among the most important emotional hot buttons affecting attitudes and judgments about a risk or threat. Hoarding of toilet paper was a way for individuals to take back personal control in a world that seemed to be spinning out of control.
The hoarding of toilet paper was rooted in an emotional response to the perception of scarcity of something many felt was essential to personal hygiene and their sense of self.
When people saw supermarkets limiting how much they could buy of something perceived as essential, they bought as much toilet paper as they could as a precaution for themselves and their families. Having appropriate supplies is one way to feel safe and secure from the enemy—in this case the virus that causes COVID-19.
3. Primal fear.
The hoarding of toilet paper has roots in primal fears and instinct. Toilet paper is associated with the Freudian unconscious mind, toilet training, lack of cleanliness, unpleasant smells, filth, death, disease, and being presentable to others.
Toilet paper became a symbol of health and a source of comfort.
4. The unfamiliar.
The hoarding of toilet paper was a natural response to a threat that was perceived as new, unfamiliar, and exotic.
People generally know what to do and what others are likely to do if a hurricane or tornado is approaching. Many people did not know what to do or what others were likely to do in response to this new disease.
In many natural disaster situations, there is a general consensus about what is needed. For COVID-19, there was high uncertainty, and uncertainty can breed hoarding and panic buying.
5. Social media.
Social media has become one of the dominant ways people learn about new risks and threats. The COVID-19 pandemic was the proximate cause of concerns about shortages of toilet paper, and social media kicked these concerns into high gear.
Social media posts made the COVID-19 disease outbreak different from other outbreaks. People were inundated with descriptions and dramatic images of overloaded shopping carts and people fighting over the last roll of toilet paper on a supermarket shelf.
When preparing for a natural disaster, one can stock up on different types of foods. People find lots of options.
For toilet paper, for many people, there were no options to toilet paper. There were no substitutes. The situation was worsened by unclear communications from risk-management authorities about when toilet paper would be plentiful again.
7. Guidance from others.
The hoarding of toilet paper was rooted in the idea that human beings are fundamentally social animals and seek guidance about new risks by looking at how others are behaving.
From an evolutionary perspective, guidance from others can be helpful. If people don’t know how to react to a new risk or threat, they can adopt the behavior of others. Seeing videos of panic buying may send a signal to the brain to do the same.
8. Inconsistent messaging.
The hoarding of toilet paper was partially rooted in distrust caused by inconsistent and conflicting messages about COVID-19.
While many traditional sources of trusted information were saying that the situation was dire, other traditional sources were saying that there was nothing to worry about, that COVID-19 was no worse than the seasonal flu, or that there were more important things to worry about, such as the economy.
9. Worry budgets.
People have worry budgets. A person can worry about only so much before the stress becomes unbearable. A ready supply of toilet paper takes this item off the worry list.
Pathway Prompt: Did you hoard toilet paper? What drove you to do this? What do you think drove your neighbors? What messages from communications professionals might have prevented this?
Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide
More information about risk, high-concern, and crisis communication can be found in Dr. Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication.
This master class introduces communicators to the tools and techniques for communicating effectively—while providing greater insight into why audiences react the way they do during times of stress.
The course comprises nine video lectures and accompanying text modules, plus supplemental materials for putting valuable lessons into practice. More information about the course, including group rates and partnering opportunities, can be found by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Vincent Covello
Dr. Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on risk, high-concern, and crisis communication. He is the author of more than 150 articles in scientific journals and the author/editor of more than 20 books.
Dr. Covello is a consultant, writer, and teacher. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has conducted communication skills training for thousands.