THE TOILET PAPER APOCALYPSE: THE CONSUMER PSYCHOLOGY BEHIND THE PANIC
Last Thursday, the NT News, an Australian newspaper serving the Northern Territories printed eight blank pages, watermarked with toilet paper sheet-sized cut-outs. ‘In case of emergency’ they quipped. As funny as it was, many folded the supplement up and kept it safe at home. These are strange times indeed.
There is a respiratory virus on the loose and we are stock-piling toilet paper and pasta. Perhaps there is some carb-loading vaccine I am not up to speed with? Videos of exponential graphs are being shared all over social media, telling us all that we are doomed. The cats must be really pissed, they usually own the internet. If a cat makes the next video on Covid-19 exponential infections, well that’s a guaranteed viral right there. Oh wait, it’s already happened.
We are all intelligent humans. Well there are exceptions clearly, like the winner of last years’ Darwin award. Patrick, 52, was an experienced pilot and flight instructor, who continued to fly his newly acquired light aircraft even though the cockpit kept filling up with aviation fuel every time he took off. On his third consecutive flight, with highly flammable fuel sloshing around his feet, he fell out of the sky, crashed and exploded in a fireball. He clearly had not bought enough toilet paper. But I digress. Back to us all being intelligent. Why the panic, the fear, the double-ply stockpiling?
Just how did toilet paper become the icon for mass hysteria globally and what factors have triggered panic buying in the first place? Time to explore the psyche and psychology of the Covid-19 shopper (well we may as well, we’re all stuck at home!)
Lesson One: The Availability Bias
Also called the availability heuristic by psychologists (who like to use fancy words), this is our natural instinct to make judgements about the likelihood of an event taking place based on an example coming to mind. Or to put it more simply, we tend to give more weight to events we can easily recall.
There are hundreds of studies proving the availability bias, but here is one everyone will understand. Let’s say I ask a sample of research subjects to answer the following question – “Which are you more likely to die from – a shark attack or being hit on the head by an airplane part falling on you”, what do we think the answer would most likely be? Well most choose the sharks. We fear we are more likely to be visited by Jaws when paddle boarding than being decapitated by a falling Boeing engine part on a leisurely stroll on the heath.
The reality (in terms of the mathematical odds, calculated using incidence over population) would differ. The odds of death by shark attack are 1 in 300 million, while weirdly the odds of death by falling airplane parts is 1 in 100 million, 3 times more likely (who knew bits fell off planes … maybe IKEA have gone into the aeronautics industry. The instructions clearly state tighten those allen screws people!)
So why do we get it wrong? Well when a shark attack death takes place, there is significant media reporting, whereas deaths as a result of being hit by a falling piece of a plane are rarely reported. So, when faced with the two options, we will go with the one we know, the one that seems familiar. Availability bias.
We carry availability bias around with us every day, in how we view the world and those in it. We make regular assumptions based on our preconceived norms. We make the same mistake with Representativeness Bias (lack of proper judgement when it comes to the probability of something happening). Take the following famous example:
Bob is an opera fan who enjoys touring art museums when on holiday. Growing up he enjoyed playing chess with friends and family. Which of the following situations is most likely?
a) Bob plays professional trumpet for a major symphony
b) Bob is a farmer
Most of us would answer a) but statistically, it is far more likely that Bob is a farmer. Simply put, there are a lot more farmers in the world than professional trumpet players, and so the probability of numbers alone should lean us to answer b). But that doesn’t happen. We rarely behave as the ‘rational’ numbers say we should.
What if you were given a free lottery ticket to choose for tonight’s big draw. One of the tickets has the numbers 06, 15, 23, 29, 36, 46 and the other has the numbers 01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06. Which would you pick? Again, most of us will pick that first ticket, the spread of numbers ‘looks’ more likely, more probable. But statistically we all know the likelihood of any given number coming out of that drum are identical, so both tickets have the same probability of winning. But most will still select the first.
So, after that discussion on sharks, airplane pieces falling from the sky, trumpet playing Bob and lottery tickets, what have we learned? Humans always lean towards what they know, what they suspect is more likely and irrationally over-predict the likelihood of something occurring again.
So why are we all panicking? The common flu killed about 12-times more people since October than Covid-19 in actual numbers (well, to date – to be fair due to immunity, the common flu only has a death rate of 0.1% compared to 2% for Covid-19). But why are we building toilet roll temples at home? Well we have endless media coverage on Covid-19, the new infections, the deaths, the doom. It has become our global ‘known event’, our familiar. Too much media exposure has heightened anxiety and resulted in it becoming likely in your life. Even though right now, for most people reading this, you might not know anyone who has contracted the virus, or certainly few will know anyone who has a severe case or died, we all now think it is likely we will succumb.
Availability bias tell us this is true (as the more media we consume, the more a reality this becomes) and Representativeness Bias tells us the probability of it happening is far more likely than actual. Cue irrational fear, panic and bum tissue stockpiling.
Put very simply, because we have been over-exposed to the stories of Covid-19 via traditional and social media, we have stronger reactions and it has manifested into a real threat to us as individuals, perhaps beyond actual threat.
Lesson Two: The Echo Chamber
Shakespeare once said that “… there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. We are making this rather bad, just by thinking. Social media has then become the fan to those flames.
While the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003 had less global impact than Covid-19 (mainly confined to Asia), it still dispersed across 29 countries including the US and Europe. It had the same probability of striking global fear into us all, a new virus, infectious, in fact with a death rate of near 10%. On paper it was more dangerous. But toilet roll was freely available throughout. Why?
Well in 2003, we had neither smartphones nor social media. There was no YouTube to watch those videos of panic in supermarkets, no WhatsApp to send memes of people wrapped in toilet paper, no online news media with user generated comments whipping up a frenzy, no Twitter conspiracies or Facebook Marketplaces offering hand sanitizer for £20 per bottle. Today, the panic is self-fulfilling, driven partly by our over exposure within our echo chambers.
I have written about echo chambers on this blog before, around the time of Trump’s election and the Brexit vote (read more here)
We build a social media network and it becomes our personal view on the reality of the world. We long forget that we curated it, that we built it, that we have loaded the dice in terms of the content we will see. It swiftly becomes not just our reality, but in our minds the only reality.
What appears on a social media feed or messaging conversations becomes, for many, their primary view of what is actually happening in the world. We forget that much of it might be fake (as per the story that spread quickly a few days ago regarding holding your breath for 10 seconds to see if you have the virus), and some of it might be coming from just opinion as opposed to fact. Click bait is everywhere. We have all lost hours over the past few days reading and watching, fear and anxiety driving us deeper down the rabbit hole.
User generated content is fantastic until it generates fear and panic. The toilet paper insanity was first shared on social media in various forms and videos, the three women in Australia really going at each other over some Quilton toilet tissue became one of the key virals. It was funny to watch, but then we started thinking … oh… if people are fighting about it… then maybe I should buy some. It’s a slippery slope people, monkey see, monkey do, monkey goes and buys 9 rolls for the price of 12.
So why all the panic buying? Simply put you saw it on Facebook so if you can’t beat them, join them.
Which leads us nicely to…
Lesson Three: Herding
As humans and indeed as animals, we have a natural instinct called Herding. That is to stay with the herd, to act like the herd, to follow. This is hard wired into our subconscious to ensure our survival. The safest place to be is surrounded by the herd. The lioness targets the lone gazelle, not the herd.
As humans, this manifests itself in our sense of tribal belonging. We are not loners. We are a social animal that thrives in groups. From an evolutionary perspective, if others didn’t die eating those berries off that bush, then its probably safe for you to eat them as well. Herding is a survival mechanism deeply rooted in our subconscious mind, and when we find ourselves in an uncertain situation, we look to others for guidance. It is a hard-wired response.
Think of the last time you were walking along a boardwalk on vacation, somewhere you don’t know that well. You were looking for somewhere to eat, and as you walk past restaurant after restaurant, you want to make the right decision. You want to enjoy a nice meal, but as you have never eaten at any of these restaurants before, you don’t have experience on your side to help you choose.
Even if a restaurant looks great (nice furnishings, great menu), if no one else is eating there, it is unlikely you will be the first. It is far more likely you will walk on and enter a restaurant that looks busy. Herding. Restaurants have known this for a long time, it is why those first few customers are always put sitting in the window or near the front. Fake it until you make it, herding will take care of the rest.
Online ratings are the same. Trying to pick between two broadly similar products online? Most of us will default to the one with most positive reviews. What others liked becomes our shortcut. Amazon flagging things as their most ‘popular seller’ is the same. Herding is when we may even disregard our own private information or perception and follow the actions of our predecessor. Or more simply put, as I said earlier, monkey see, monkey do.
Because of the afore mentioned echo chambers, we all witnessed the panic buying. We laughed but then wondered. And slowly we all got sucked in. I’d like to think I’m above such things, until I found myself stockpiling paracetamol and vitamin C over the past few days. My thinking was, if it’s toilet paper and pasta now, it’ll be paracetamol tomorrow as shoppers prepare to actually have the illness. Better buy enough before stocks run out. I happened to mention this to the guy next to me in the queue at the pharmacy, who agreed and then promptly bought some himself. And the herding begins.
We watched what other people were doing. The empty shelf photos, the stock piling, and thought ‘me too’. What started as perceived scarcity becomes actual scarcity very quickly, driven by herding. And thus the humble toilet roll became the icon of mass panic.
Lesson Four: Autonomy (Our Need to Control)
Imagine you are in a dark room, blindfolded (why they’ve blindfolded you when you were already in a dark room is beyond me, but just trust me, go with it). You are told to take a few steps forward. You can see nothing so you are careful how you step. Small ones I’d imagine. Your hands would automatically stretch out in front of you, feeling for any obstacle. If there was a sudden movement or something brushed quickly past your face you would react, likely flailing your arms in the dark to fight against whatever uncertainty was presenting itself.
These reactions would be survivalist, ancient hard-wiring to deal with uncertainty. Anyone who has had a baby knows the fun of instigating the Moro reflex (the automatic opening and closing of the arms when you artificially lower a baby quickly, fully supported, mimicking a fall). I say those who have had a baby, as I can’t imagine many, while holding a friend’s new baby, have pretended to do a controlled drop so they could watch an automatic reflex. I doubt you’d be a friend for very long.
Anyway, that too is an automatic reflex, likely left over as a survival instinct allowing a baby to cling to its mother. As humans, we don’t particularly like to lose control and we don’t like uncertainty.
Uncertainty brings unpredictability. Faced with uncertainty, we will do things in order to feel in control. For well established uncertainties, there are known solutions. Take hurricane season for example.
Every year, certain geographies are known to experience their fair share of hurricanes. In one way this is similar to the Covid-19 threat in that it is a natural disaster, relatively uncertain in terms of how much an effect it will have on any given individual, and it too may cause death or destruction.
The difference is that hurricanes are a known entity. There is a certain if/then response to the threat, and therefore the uncertainty is far less. We take control by tying things down, boarding up windows, and buying a few days groceries. It is less panic and more preparation. People know what they need for hurricane season, but this virus is uncertain. We may be hard-wired to protect ourselves from threats, but when a threat has too much uncertainty, we are likely to witness unusual behaviours.
So, we feel out of control, faced with too much uncertainty. People feel that no one really seems to know what is coming for us, how long lock-downs will last or healthcare facilities will cope. People need to have some feeling of control over their lives and so we do something, anything, to feel that control. Cue panic buying and retail therapy.
We often buy to manage our emotional state. Ask any woman who has just broken up with a boyfriend and bought new shoes or a handbag, or any man in a similar situation who goes off and buys himself a new watch or gadget. Buying can often be an emotional response as opposed to driven by any specific want.
The Covid-19 virus is an invisible enemy, we cannot see it, touch it and more worryingly, seem to be able to flee it. In terms of fight or flight we feel disarmed, we are flailing, stressed but in need of some kind of action to feel better. When you cannot see an enemy, you lose any sense of control. And when we feel out of control, we try and do something to compensate and get that ‘I’ve got this’ feeling. Buying something is one way of doing that.
Do we need all this toilet roll? No. But it gives us a sense of having done ‘something’. In posh psychology terms it’s called Competence – that feeling that you’ve done the right thing, that in this instance you’ve been a smart shopper. In a world that is out of control, we have to do something to feel better, and it turns out it’s needless stock piling that does it for most
Lesson Five: Mistrust
Lastly, less of a psychological condition or social circumstance, and more of an obvious one, is how a lack of timely information breeds mistrust. We are faced with uncertainty. We feel out of control. We are scared. There is significant risk (this virus could kill you) but the advised action (wash your hands) seems so disproportionate. Because of this gap between perceived risk and nominated action, people sometimes react in the extreme.
Imagine if you were about to jump out of a plane and instead of a parachute you were handed a bed sheet to hold at the corners. “Will this keep me safe?” you’d rightly ask. The reply of “… ah it’s a King size, you should be fine” will do little to allay any fears. When the solution is valued less than the risk, fear takes over and results in often extreme or unusual behaviours.
Conflicting reactions and information hasn’t helped. In the US, Trump tells the country there is nothing to worry about and its all been blown out of proportion, only a few days later to declare a national emergency and shuts the countries borders (something he loves to do anyway). In the UK, Johnson seems to have decided to follow through on Brexit thinking and not do what the rest of Europe are doing. Instead of a lock-down, they’ve gone for a ‘herd immunisation’ strategy – basically letting the virus ripple through until a desired 60% (40m) of the population have had it. As a UK citizen, watching the responses of other countries, you can see why you might mistrust what your government are saying or doing.
Fear remains one of the most powerful emotions, and is responsible for so many of our subconscious behaviours as humans. Mistrust is simply a fear of being somehow misled. Conspiracy theorists thrive on mistrust.
The moon landing was faked, 9/11 was an inside job, Area 51 is a drop-in centre for aliens, the world is flat (that last group, the Flat Earthers even have an annual conference to which I genuinely would love to attend. Last years was in Dallas, Texas, but this year, the plan was to have it on a cruise ship, sailing to Antarctica to finally prove their point. Ironically as both the cruise and conference industries struggle because of Covid-19, this will unlikely now happen. Just as well, as they would have likely sailed right over the edge into the abyss)
But we all love a good conspiracy, don’t we? JFK shot from the grassy knoll, the CIA created the AIDS virus to kill homosexuals and African Americans, and my favourite, that Paul McCartney died in a car crash in the mid-60s, his replacement a guy who looked like him and has played the role ever since (click here if you want to fall down that particular well!).
The idea that we are cleverer than the rest, and refuse to simply believe the government agency misinformation is what delights us. We refuse to be managed, handled, controlled.
Because this is a new virus, a pandemic unlike others before of our time, we are learning on the go. And that includes governments and health authorities. Social media moves faster than policy, and so the average consumer today felt that governments were not acting fast enough. As the stories, predictions and panic spread on social, people felt their government either didn’t ‘get it’ or were playing down the likely outcome. Into that vacuum of mistrust steps behavioural action.
Even though every government has told its people there are no issues in the supply chain, we seem not to trust them. What do they know? Despite being told not to stockpile, supermarkets are jammed like its Christmas Eve and online delivery slots involve over a 7-day wait in some countries (as a random aside, this is going to be a major step jump for online grocery behaviour post Covid-19 as during the next few months, retail introduces and deepens many consumers’ online grocery habits).
So, what do we do when we mistrust? We don’t listen and do what we think feels right. Time to stock up on toilet paper (and let’s not forget the pasta).
So, what have we learned?
We have been over exposed to media coverage, particularly inside on our social media Echo Chamber. We therefore perhaps perceive the immediate risk as bigger than it is (the Availability & Representativeness bias), we see others panicking and behaving in strange ways, and while we might think it odd, suddenly we think it better to join them (Herding). We take the control we feel we lack in this uncertainty (Autonomy), and scared the authorities might have got it wrong (Mistrust), buy 48 rolls of toilet paper we don’t need right now.
If you’ve enjoyed this blog and feel you’ve learned something from it, please share it within your own networks. I’d really appreciate it, and everyone is bored at home, may as well give them something to read. If you didn’t enjoy the read, print out the pages and keep next to your toilet for when the toilet paper apocalypse really kicks in.
Either way you win. Stay safe, wash your hands and for goodness sake, try and poop less. It’s for the greater good.
Post-Script: The Covid-19 virus is dangerous to some, and as such is causing death. The occasional humour expressed in this article does not take from the real grief some families will experience because of this pandemic, and this article does not aim to make light of that reality.
Ken Hughes is now acknowledged as being one of the world’s leading authorities on consumer and shopper behaviour, blending his understanding of consumer & cyber psychology, digital anthropology, behavioral economics and retail futurology to explore the needs of the new consumer and predict the changes to come.
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