Coronavirus: Why Are People Panic Buying Toilet Paper?

March 21, 2020
One of the most striking behavior patterns we're seeing during the coronavirus crisis is the panic buying of toilet paper. Why is this happening? These are the psychological explanations for this type of behavior.

If there’s one thing we must admit about the current COVID-19 crisis, it’s that we’re witnessing behavior that’s of great psychological interest. One of them is undoubtedly the need for panic buying and the subsequent empty shelves. People buy toilet paper in great quantities and many of us wonder why.

At the beginning of this pandemic, the vast majority of people were faced with the need to buy masks and hydroalcoholic gel. The justification for this behavior was logical and understandable: they had to protect themselves. We were all anxious to ensure we had a defensive barrier against the virus. This is still relevant these days. But what explanation can we give to those who are desperately shopping for toilet paper?

Moreover, another question arises: why acquire such a large amount in a single purchase when there are no supply problems? The fact of the matter is that accumulating this product seems to offer mental and emotional peace of mind to those who buy and store it.

Beyond the irony, the jokes, and the memes you’ve surely seen about it, there are a number of explanations that you should know. There’s a great psychological impact here that acts as a barometer of public opinion and public feeling as a whole. Let’s have a closer look.

Someone panic buying toilet paper.

Why do people buy so much toilet paper?

An undeniable fact is that toilet paper isn’t an essential commodity. It’s very different from water or food that can guarantee our survival, and yet our modern mind considers it to be essential. We deem it to be more important than other toiletry products such as soap, for example.

This is an interesting fact in itself, which is somehow rooted in Western culture and thinking. Curiously, the Chinese people didn’t exhibit this behavior. They didn’t compulsively buy toilet paper. They knew that, if there was no toilet paper, they could use tissues or even paper towels.

But the Western brain behaves differently in emergency situations. Let’s see what explanations we can give for why people buy toilet paper compulsively.

A minimum level of comfort that we don’t want to give up

If we’re going to be at home for several weeks, we want to do it with a minimum level of comfort. Moreover, if we were to find ourselves in the situation of not being able to go shopping, then there are are a number of products we think we wouldn’t be able to do without. Toilet paper is one of them. We even place it at the base of the pyramid of basic needs.

It isn’t something that will satisfy our appetite, that’s for sure. However, by having it, we’re assured of a minimum sense of dignity. It’s something we can’t seem to give up.

Irrational behavior is contagious

One thing we know well from the field of consumer psychology is that purchasing behavior is largely impulsive and irrational.

It’s enough for us to see how others behave when purchasing a product for us to want to do the same. We may not imitate it at that very moment, but, at some point, we will.

  • People don’t only buy toilet paper because it’s an essential commodity. They also do so because they see how others are acquiring it en masse.
  • Social networks and television continuously show us people with carts full of toilet paper. The contagion effect is unstoppable.
  • At the same time, there’s another phenomenon. This product takes up such a big area in our supermarket shelves, that when we see they’re, empty that really creates an impact.
  • Above all, it creates a feeling that this is something we can’t do without. The result is that we feel we have to stock up on it.

If people buy toilet paper en masse, there may be none left for me

The fact that the purchase volume of this product is so high arouses another fear: the possibility that there may be none left. It’s like a fish eating its own tail and is based on the fear of being without.

It’s quite possible that you didn’t feel any sort of need to accumulate this product in bulk. However, the simple fact of seeing other people buying so much of it pushes us to think that if we don’t hurry up and buy some, then there’ll be none left for us.

In uncertain contexts, buying offers a sense of control

There’s another factor that’s also interesting from a psychological point of view. When you go through difficult times, and when you’re surrounded by uncertainty, anguish, or restlessness, often, the act of buying lets you feel that you’re in control.

The simple fact of having a good supply of food and basic products in your home gives you relief and a feeling of safety and security. Because, this way, you believe that your essential needs are covered. That’s why your brain experiences peace of mind.

People buy toilet paper because they don’t want to give up that product. It offers them a minimum sense of dignity that they want to keep.

To conclude, no matter how ironic and irrational this behavior may seem to us, it’s something that we can explain. It’s understandable and it’s just one more effect of the feeling of panic. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t essential for our survival. In moments of crisis, having it close to us creates a feeling of normality. We feel like we’re still in control.