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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Tragedy of the Commons: Mystery of the Missing Toilet Paper

Where does the impulse to create an unnecessary shortage originate?

Worried about shortages, grocery suppliers and store management are continuing to stock up on household goods as they brace for what could happen as coronavirus continues to interfere with supply lines.

Source: Raed Mansour/Wikimedia Commons
A Chicago toilet paper aisle during COVID-19.
Source: Raed Mansour/Wikimedia Commons

Shortages earlier in 2020 arose out of fear, not because of any increase in demand for most products. Why did the toilet paper aisles keep emptying? Before lockdown kept workers home and interfered with production of any products, panic-buying kept depleting stock unnecessarily. Had people continued to purchase at their previous rates, no such depletion would have occurred at the time. That collective truth did not deter individual fears of "What if we run out? Let's make sure we don't." That kind of thinking, however, leads to the follow-up, "Stores are running out! We need to stock up!"

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin described the Tragedy of the Commons, the unnecessary problem that can negatively impact everyone when individuals start using more than their equal or equitable share of any commonly shared resource. Suppose 100 farmers share a field with grass and water capable of sustaining 100 cattle. If each farmer grazes a single cow, the resources naturally replenish at a rate that can sustain them all. Once one farmer decides, "Well, I can sell twice as much milk if I add one more cow. That won't affect anybody else enough to matter"—a one percent increase in usage. But then another farmer sees this and decides to do it, too—two percent increase. So it goes. Should everyone do that, usage doubles, which far exceeds the natural rate of replenishment, and soon the farmers and their famished cows are sharing a bleak field of mud.

Social psychologists have studied and discussed the Tragedy of the Commons as a type of social trap, which refers to any situation in which conflicting parties embroil themselves in mutually destructive behavior through respective pursuit of self-interest. No matter how rational that self-interest may seem, the personally rewarding behaviors lead to collective punishment in part because the destructive consequences seem remote and disconnected while the rewards may be immediate and easier to see (Deutsch, 1999). A social dilemma results (Myers & Twenge, p. 389): "How can we reconcile individual self-interest with communal well-being?"

On each side of the problem, people tend to explain their own actions in terms of external circumstances and other people's in terms of internal traits: "Circumstances are forcing me into this. I can't let all those greedy pigs leave me without anything I need." That's an example of the fundamental attribution error, attributing one's own behavior to the situation and other people's behavior to disposition, and most fail to realize that the others view them the same way (Hine & Gifford, 1996). Educating people and helping them become more aware of what they're doing may help, but if it were easy to get people to set short-term self-interest aside in order to achieve long-term benefit for themselves and everybody, human history would likely look quite different and civilization more civil.

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Deutsch, M. (1999). Behind the scenes. In D. G. Myers (Author), Social psychology (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162 (3859), 1243-1248.

Hine, D. W., & Gifford, R. (1996). Attributions about self and others in commons dilemmas. European Journal of Social Psychology, 26(3), 429-445.

Myers, D. G., & Twenge, J. M. (2019). Social psychology (13th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

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