“Stop hoarding. I can’t be more blunt about it. Stop it. It is not sensible, it is not helpful and it has been one of the most disappointing things I have seen in Australian behaviour in response to this crisis”.
That was Prime Minister Scott Morrison just over 12 months ago when the pandemic first got going.
Now it seems that, with the recent spate of lockdowns now rolling out across the country, Australia is falling back on old, familiar management strategies to get it through these trying times; buy all the toilet paper. All of it.
We often shake our heads in confusion, or laugh at the seemingly nonsensical nature of people stocking up wildly on groceries, but is there a deeper reason behind why people feel the urge to clean out the aisles?
We’re barely a week into lockdown in Sydney and already supermarkets are having to introduce buying limits on products to stop people hoarding all the supplies that others need (and they probably don’t).
The need for toilet paper is not a logical thing for people to need at a time like this. COVID-19 symptoms are not typically associated with … *ahem* … a need for toilet paper.
So what is going on here? What is turning presumably otherwise sensible people into bunker-dwelling preppers equipping themselves for a role in a disaster movie? Let’s take a look at the psychology behind panic buying.
Fear of the unknown
“It is rational to prepare for something bad that looks like it is likely to occur,” David Savage, associate professor of behavioural and microeconomics at the University of Newcastle in Australia told the BBC.
He’s an expert on the rationality behind stocking up in a crisis.
However, “It is not rational,” he explains, “to buy 500 cans of baked beans for what would likely be a two-week isolation period”.
'ONE pack of toilet paper per person, and no panic-buying the flour this time, Ethel – I remember you from 2020.' pic.twitter.com/0qbKqRuOUV
— Art Gallery NSW (@ArtGalleryofNSW) June 29, 2021
A recent study on the psychology of panic buying suggests that the practice is influenced by the threat of the looming event, emotions of uncertainty around what is going to happen, and a perceived scarcity of the availability of products.
Panic buying, therefore, is a coping strategy that people seem to employ in the face of unknown dangers.
It’s known as ‘survival psychology’, which is a behavioural change that people go through in the face of major catastrophes.
However, there is a clear difference between gathering supplies to survive a natural disaster and panic buying unnecessary items that probably won’t be of much assistance should the worst happen.
Panic buying seems to be most common when the threat is new or unknown. For example, Australia itself faces an almost annual cycle of natural disasters from fires, to floods, to hurricanes.
When these events occur, people generally know what to do and we have established national, state, and community strategies in place to mitigate the effects and impacts of those specific disasters.
In the case of fire, people know to prepare by clearing gutters, getting rid of dry leaf litter on forest floors, leaving well before the fire approaches, and keeping masks and spare clothes and supplies on hand if they have to flee.
In the case of COVID, we don’t exactly know what is coming or what to expect, so that survival psychology emerges in strange ways.
Scarcity and a need for control
That being said, we’ve been here before. Videos and images of people fighting over toilet paper went viral last year as people reacted to the new — and quite terrifying — information of a global pandemic.
That was over a year ago, however, and it appears that we haven’t quite learnt our lesson.
Reports of panic buying in Darwin, Sydney, and rural NSW have emerged however, interestingly, panic buying appears to have at least been quelled in Melbourne and Victoria.
That’s not just because Melbourne isn’t in lockdown at the moment. People in Melbourne have experienced enough lockdowns to know that toilet paper won’t run out, supermarkets will generally be able to keep up with demand, and the world will keep turning.
People in Sydney haven’t had that experience in over a year. People in Darwin have never had to face the realities of a lockdown. To them, it is still a new and relatively unknown phenomena, hence why panic buying is far more prevalent in these places.
— Amber (she/her) (@JarrettGeo) June 27, 2021
Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, and the author of The Psychology of Pandemics says that scarcity and groupthink play a big role in panic buying.
“If the price of a roll of toilet paper is tripled, that’s seen as a scarcer commodity to acquire, which can lead to anxiety,” he says.
Panic buying, Taylor says, is fuelled by anxiety, prompting people to go to great lengths to deal with those fears like queueing for hours or buying way more than you need.
As soon as we see one person do this, we immediately follow suit. Even if we know that panic buying is stupid, when confronted with empty aisles at the supermarket, we’re tempted to join in.
Even though we might not think the world is ending, knowing that others are thinking and behaving in this way can influence us to act the same so that we don’t miss out.
Humans have quite a history of doing stuff like this. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when nuclear war seemed imminent, American families filled their basements with enough canned goods and bottled water to survive an atomic apocalypse.
In the late 1990’s, as the threat of the Y2K glitch loomed large, the US Treasury had to print an extra $50 billion to keep up with the demand for cash that people were hoarding.
The American talk show host Johnny Carson even managed to start a toilet paper shortage in 1973 simply by – incorrectly – stating that there was a shortage in the US.
Recently, in the South Eastern United States, people were filmed getting into punch-ups and filling plastic bags with petrol as a fuel pipeline shutdown led to widespread fears of shortages.
Hoarding supplies of something thought to be in danger of running out allows people to feel in control of a situation that they are uncertain and nervous about.
In reality, it only makes the situation worse, drawing others in and creating the reality of shortages that the panic buyers themselves feared.
We’re not in this together
Have you ever thought about how quickly things would deteriorate if the supermarkets, petrol stations, or utilities just stopped working? Sure, people might be able to cope for a few days, but a few weeks without essential supplies and people would start to get desperate.
The whole machine we call society only works when all the cogs are spinning. Throw a spanner in there, like COVID or a hurricane or other natural disaster, and suddenly that machine starts to break down.
People who offer some good or service in exchange for money that they can then use to buy the goods and services they themselves can’t provide is the basic foundation of society in general.
— Milly Waldren (@AmeliaWaldren) June 30, 2021
Since we’ve largely moved on from subsistence living in Australia, we’re so separated from the things we need to do in order to sustain ourselves, like farming or building shelter, that we can easily start to panic when we sense that the system we’ve relied on for so long might not be there.
It’s the same reason that people get really into prepping for disasters that may or may not happen, building nuclear bomb shelters loaded with supplies or learning to hunt and live off the land.
Now, toilet paper is not a good substitute for food or shelter, but it’s a projection of this fear that drives people to do strange things.
Being prepared for an uncertain future is not an inherently bad idea. It’s why we keep savings and have superannuation. But taken to extremes and abstracted out in weird ways like the ones we’ve seen unfolding across supermarkets in Australia, it’s simply not helpful and likely to only encourage similar behaviour in others.
Or, who knows, maybe toilet paper will be the currency of the future in our dystopic, post-COVID hell-scape and maybe these people are simply ahead of the curve.