As fears over the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, people around the planet responded by hoarding hand sanitizer, stockpiling face masks, and wiping shelves clean – so to speak – of toilet paper. Now, a team of researchers has set out to characterize the type of person most likely to “panic buy” amid a global emergency.
As the coronavirus spread around the world earlier this year, so did the demand for commodities – some companies reported a 700 percent increase in sales – prompting many stores to place limits on numbers of items bought. In a social media survey of more than 1,000 adults from 35 countries, a multinational team of researchers determined that people who are more emotional, conscientious, and felt threatened by Covid-19 were most likely to stockpile toilet paper in March.
So, why were some people more likely to hoard toilet paper than others and what psychological underpinnings did they exhibit?
Between March 23 and 29, 2020, anonymous study participants in the US, Europe, and Canada completed the Brief HEXACO Inventory (BIH) survey by sharing information about their demographics, perceived threat of the pandemic, quarantine behaviors, and how much toilet paper they had used in recent months. BIH is a standardized psychological survey that characterizes personality descriptors along with six personality types: Honesty-Humility (characterized by sincerity, fairness, and modest), Emotionality (fearful, anxious, sentimental), Extraversion (social self-esteem and boldness), Agreeableness (forgiveness, gentleness, and patience), Conscientiousness (organization, diligence, and prudence), and lastly, Openness to Experience (creative and inquisitive). This model allows researchers to empirically address certain personality traits that make one more common to respond in certain manners.
Older participants were shown to shop more frequently, buy more rolls of toilet paper, and keep more in stock compared to younger participants. Europeans shopped for toilet paper more frequently than North Americans but had less in stock
“The most robust predictor of toilet paper stockpiling was the perceived threat posed by Covid-19. People who feel more threatened by the pandemic stockpile more toilet paper,” wrote the researchers in PLOS ONE. “Given that stockpiling is objectively unrelated to saving lives or jobs during a health crisis, this finding supports the notion that toilet paper functions as a purely subjective symbol of safety.”
By and large, those who felt the most threatened by the spread of SARS-CoV-2 were most likely to stockpile toilet paper which is, at least in part, due to the “emotionality” of people – those who tend to worry a lot or feel more anxious were more likely to feel threatened, thus respond by buying toilet paper. People with characteristics of conscientiousness, which includes traits of organization, perfectionism, and diligence, were also likely to stockpile.
The researchers add that there is likely still some psychological explanations and situational factors that were not accounted for in the research and note that they are still “far away from understanding this phenomenon comprehensively.” Local or regional differences may have played a role in personality differences, like health-related concerns or socioeconomic status.
Regardless, the results emphasize the importance of leaders to clearly communicate and acknowledge anxiety, as well as to maintain and transmit a sense of control over a situation.