Why Toilet Paper?

Current research in economics and psychology explains the violence and hysteria.

Posted Mar 19, 2020

 Pixabay
Worth fighting for?
Source: Pixabay

In the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, supermarkets across the U.S., U.K., and Australia are selling out of toilet paper. Worse, videos have gone viral showing people fighting and becoming violent over toilet paper...

But why?

Eddy Lim wrote:

"Let’s get one thing straight: the toilet paper crisis is stupid. Why, of all things, are people stockpiling toilet paper during an epidemic that affects respiratory systems and not gastrointestinal plumbing ... On top of that you can’t eat toilet paper, you can’t drink toilet paper, and you can’t even use it to fuel your car or heat your home. It’s a single purpose product that's untailored for this situation, and yet people are fighting each other in supermarket aisles for it."

This explanation doesn't quite cut it.

While many take this phenomenon to be indicative of the "stupidity" of humans, current research in economics and psychology suggests that there are a variety of economic and psychological mechanisms that have caused this sellout.

The primary culprit is a cultural phenomenon that economists, psychologists, and political scientists have called the bandwagon effect. As I wrote in a previous post, the bandwagon effect (or contagion effect) is a phenomenon in which the rate at which the spread of ideas, behaviour, and trends rises with the rate of others adopting the trend.

A large part of the blame goes to the media. I am willing to bet that if no articles on toilet paper had been published, there would be no "toilet paper crisis" now. Yet once people got the impression that the next time they need toilet paper there won't be any to find, everyone rushed to supermarkets to buy some. The first people who did so may have been irrational, but if everyone expects that others expect toilet paper to be sold out, then everyone is rational, in a sense, to act accordingly. 

It is thus a phenomenon that is easily explained by economics, or more precisely, game theory. This might seem like a "collective irrationality," yet it makes sense that every individual would start to buy toilet paper if they are afraid that everyone else will start to hoard it.

News reports and articles that appeal to reason are probably not going to work. The only information they send is one of crisis, thus leading to even more hysteria surrounding toilet paper. With every additional report, the investment into toilet paper seems only more rational.

The violence and hysteria are therefore not surprising. Apparently irrational behaviour can often be rationalized. Recent research in economics and psychology explains the effect as a simple instance of the bandwagon effect.

The bandwagon effect also seems to be at work behind Joe Biden's sudden dominance in the Democratic field.

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