Why Toilet Paper?
Current research in economics and psychology explains the violence and hysteria.
Posted Mar 19, 2020
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...
"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.
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.