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Wiped Clean: Why the Run on Toilet Paper? An Anthropological Perspective

Common sense dictates if someone needs 200 rolls of toilet paper for a 14-day quarantine, they probably should have made a doctor's appointment way before the COVID-19 outbreak. Best-selling author Sherrilyn Kenyon, said that life before toilet paper was not worth living.

Clearly, she is not alone in her belief as Seattleites scramble to empty store aisles of bath tissue in the midst of the COVID-19 virus outbreak. As an anthropologist and student of human behavior, observing the collective behavior of our species during a global pandemic is both fascinating to me and worthy of analysis.

But why toilet paper? One word, control.

This virus is an invisible foe, and when humans are unable to see the enemy, we feel threatened and at risk. As a result, we will attempt to regain our sense of perceived control by whatever means available. In today’s world, taking action to relieve anxiety can mean making purchases to feel like you’re “doing something,” to take control of the situation. For example, toilet paper.

In addition to bath tissue, people started stocking up on items they believed would help them mitigate the problems caused by the virus. Items like hand sanitizer, cleaners, masks and other hygienic products. Cleanliness is Godliness, yes? Maybe, but with herd mentality being instinctual, so is altruism and empathy. Now is the time to get in touch with those caring instincts and start sharing our stashes of Charmin so we’re not all dragging our backsides on the carpet like Rover.

Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, explained it best in an interview with the BBC, “If everyone else on the Titanic is running for the lifeboats, you’re going to run too, regardless if the ship’s sinking or not.”

As irrational as it is to believe toilet paper will prevent the contraction of COVID-19, the purchasing of mass quantities makes some people feel safer and more in control. After all, who wants to be stranded without a roll, and stuck on the toilet bowl? Those rolls of Angel Soft magically make us feel like we’ve mastered control over cleanliness and personal hygiene.

Let’s not forget how this herd mentality started. Panic-buying became common when social media photos started popping up with empty shelves of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. As humans, we tend to believe that serious events call for equally dramatic responses, even when staying home and washing your hands would be a more effective reaction. Witnessing others hoarding all the toilet paper becomes a contagion in and of itself and creates a snowball effect of panic buying. In other words, we pick up cues from other people.

Preparing for natural disasters is rational and prudent. Most families know how to prepare for things like hurricanes because these kinds of natural disasters are fairly common. However, the effects of viral pandemics are less known and carry a significant level of uncertainty. This can spur the anxiety and panic-buying we are currently witnessing. Humans tend to react in proportion to the perceived level of threat, and hand-washing seems to be too mundane of a solution for many.

The best way to combat the panic buying is by giving the public consistent and accurate information. Until now, the available information has been inconsistent, and often misleading and contradictory. After all, if one has anxiety about being quarantined for weeks due to COVID-19, having a clean backside is a reasonable consideration. Many are basing decisions based on the information at hand. While this may result in a poor choice, it may not seem like an unreasonable one at the time.

So, what should be done about this human instinct to hoard the bowel towels? Rather than ridiculing a panic-stricken neighbor or rolling our eyes at a co-worker who goes to the ER for what turns out to be a bad cold, remember they are likely doing the best they can with the information they have. Instead, let’s pay attention to what matters most, taking care of our neighbors, addressing the faults in our health-care system and receiving more consistent and accurate information on the issues directly affecting our lives.

Remember what Joni Mitchell said, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” For example, toilet paper.