But the phenomenon had a serious side, too. Other shortages that resulted from pandemic-related panic buying — particularly of more essential items such as medicines, hand sanitizers and face masks — put the health of many high-risk individuals, including health workers, in greater jeopardy.
It also added to the general stress and anxiety that people were experiencing regarding COVID-19.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that researchers would want to examine why people began stockpiling commodities like toilet paper. Developing a better understanding of the psychological underpinnings of the behavior could help governments take measures to mitigate it in the future.
On Friday, a team of German and Swiss researchers published just such a study in the journal PLOS One. Not unexpectedly, they found that people who felt the most threatened by COVID-19 tended to stockpile more toilet paper. But they also found that the hoarding was associated with two broad personality traits: emotionality (a tendency to worry a lot and feel anxious) and conscientiousness (a tendency to be exceptionally prudent and well-organized).
It was not, however, associated with the personality trait of honesty-humility (a tendency to have a high sense of fairness, sincerity and greed-avoidance). That finding suggests that the hoarding was not the result of selfishness.
The study was conducted from March 23 through March 29, which was two to three weeks after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. It was also a period during which many countries, including Germany and the United States, had implemented partial or complete lockdowns.
For the study, researchers recruited 1,029 adults from 35 countries through various social media platforms. The participants completed an online HEXACO inventory, an assessment that measures six broad dimensions of personality: honesty-humility, emotionality, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience. They also answered questions about their perceptions of the threat of COVID-19, their quarantine behaviors and their toilet paper purchases.
The surveys were conducted in English and German. Translation help was provided to participants who requested it.
The data revealed that the perceived threat posed by COVID-19 was the strongest predictor of toilet-paper hoarding. The more people felt threatened by the pandemic, the more they crammed their cupboards with toilet paper.
“Given that stockpiling is objectively unrelated to saving lives or jobs during a health crisis, this finding supports the notion that toilet paper functions as a purely subjective symbol of safety,” the researchers write.
A significant portion of the differences in toilet paper consumption could also be linked to people’s emotionality — their dispositional tendency to be fearful, anxious and dependent. This finding suggests, say the study’s authors, that some people may have hoarded toilet paper because they feared leaving the safety of their homes to do more shopping.
“While it is important to communicate the severity of a pandemic and appeal to people’s compliance to necessary measures such as social distancing,” write the researchers, “communicators should be careful not to provide panic that can eventually result in dysfunctional behavior such as stockpiling.”
Another strong predictor of toilet-paper hoarding was how high people scored on the personality trait of conscientiousness (characterized by organization, diligence, perfectionism and prudence). “More conscientious people tend to stockpile more toilet paper,” the researchers state.
That finding suggests, they add, that public officials should emphasize “the functioning of supply chains and the long-term availability of vital commodities” during a pandemic to help people continue to feel in control of their ability to purchase items that they want and need.
The study’s data revealed that people who scored high on the personality trait of honesty-humility were not less likely to hoard toilet paper during the pandemic than those who scored lower.
“This implies that toilet paper stockpiling might not be resulting from a lack of solidarity and, as such, moral appeals by public authorities asking people to refrain from stockpiling might be less fruitful than expected,” the researchers say.
Age did, however, factor into the tendency to hoard toilet paper, with older people most likely to do it — perhaps, say the researchers, because they were more worried about contracting COVID-19 and thus more eager to get settled into their homes for a long period of self-isolation.
Interestingly, Americans were more likely than Europeans to fill their cupboards with toilet paper. That may have been because, as the study revealed, their perception of the threat of COVID-19 was higher than that of Europeans. But the surveys also showed that Americans shopped less frequently for toilet paper than their European counterparts — probably, say the study’s authors, because toilet paper rolls come in bigger packages in the U.S. than in European countries.
Limitations and implications
This was a relatively small survey, conducted entirely online, and people had to opt in to take it. Its findings may not be generalizable.
Furthermore, as the researchers point out, the variables they looked at explained only about 12 percent of the differences in toilet paper stockpiling. That suggests other psychological or situational factors — or narrower personality traits like optimism, perfectionism, or even antisocial ones like narcissism — played a role in this behavior.
“Subjective threat of COVID-19 seems to be an important trigger for toilet paper stockpiling,” the researchers write. “However, we are still far away from understanding this phenomenon comprehensively.”
Fortunately, there seems to be more toilet paper on store shelves these days.
FMI: BMJ Open is an open-access journal, so you can read the study in full on the publication’s website.