Experts Explain Why People Are Panic Buying Toilet Paper, Of All Things

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Since the first months of the Covid-19 breaking out, people in Hong Kong and at one point, even Singapore, had been panic buying toilet paper.

Now that the coronavirus has swept across the globe, people in other countries such as America and Australia have been scrambling to supermarkets in a blind panic, swiping shelves clean of basic necessities. One of the first items to fly off the shelves? Toilet paper.

Just today (March 11), it was reported that supermarkets in Penang were cleared of toilet paper after the Malaysian city’s first suspected Covid-19 patient surfaced.

If you think this only happens in Asia because of our kiasu tendencies, cops have been called in Australia after some supermarket shoppers got into a scuffle over… you guessed it, toilet paper.

Food is essential for survival, but that’s not to say we should be hoarding them. But “why toilet paper?” Many people are left wondering about this peculiar hoarding behaviour.

Experts have weighed in on why people are stockpiling toilet paper like it’s doomsday.

Also read: Working From Home Because Of COVID-19? Here Are 7 Ways To Reduce Costs

So, why toilet paper?

Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, an expert in consumer and behaviour science at the University College London, explained on Skynews that rolls of toilet paper actually take up a large amount of space in the supermarket aisle, so we’re psychologically more drawn to purchasing it in a crisis period.

Said Tsivrikos: “The bigger they are, the more important we think they are.”

Katharina Wittgens, a psychologist specialising in individual and group behaviour, also highlighted that because of how bulky they are, it’s more obvious when an aisle of toilet paper is empty, causing the craze to intensify.

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Said Professor Debra Grace from Griffith University: “It’s much more noticeable than say 50 cans of baked beans or hand sanitiser disappearing.”

To put it simply, people have the fear of missing out (FOMO)—they’re afraid that items will be in shortage because of hoarders, and they too, start mass buying in case stocks run out.

Associate Professor Nitika Garg, a consumer behaviour researcher at the University of New South Wales, told BBC: “They think if this person is buying it, if my neighbour is buying, there’s got to be a reason and I need to get in too”.

Also read: Worried About COVID-19? Here’s What You Can Do To Lower Your Risk Of Infection

It’s about first-world comforts

Emma Kelly, a psychologist, shared that it’s not really the virus that people are concerned about, she said, “but more about holding on to those first-world comforts of being able to use the toilet.”

“Toilet paper doesn’t really matter—it’s just so far down the survival list compared to other things like food or water—but it’s just something people cling to as a minimum standard,” said Dr Rohan Miller, consumer expert from the University of Sydney to BBC.

“When it comes to coronavirus, people aren’t certain as to how things are going to pan out, or how much worse it’s going to get,” Prof Garg says.

Panic buying also triggers a false sense of being in control of a situation. When people don’t know how long the virus will be around for, they start overestimating the number of essentials they need.

Wittgens says this panic usually declines when people have had more time to assess the situation and think more rationally.

Also read: Japanese Guy Asks Girl Out For A Date After She Offered To Give Him Toilet Paper

It’s been weeks since the panic-buying in Singapore when the Dorscon Orange alert was first activated. Since then, supermarket shelves have been restocked and it looks like it’s business as usual now, once we realised that there are enough food reserves for the country and there’s no need for hoarding.

So the next time you’re thinking of hoarding, keep calm and think rationally instead of giving in to your fears and following the herd.

Images: Melissa Goh / AsiaOne, Unsplash
Text: Melissa Goh / AsiaOne / March 2020

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