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People who felt more threatened by COVID-19 and scored high on the emotionality and conscientiousness scales were most likely to hoard toilet paper when the coronavirus shutdown began in March.
enlarge People who felt more threatened by COVID-19 and scored high on the emotionality and conscientiousness scales were most likely to hoard toilet paper when the coronavirus shutdown began in March.

In March, we reported on the strange phenomenon of people rushing to lay out toilet paper as the coronavirus pandemic led to widespread adoption of on-site policies and social distancing. Now, German scientists have identified a number of key personality traits that appear to be linked to this type of hoarding behavior, according to a new article in the journal PLOS ONE.

Consumer behavior researcher Kit Yarrow told Ars in March that hoarding toilet paper is at least partly an attempt to gain a sense of control when the world is feeling insecure and dangerous. “When we’re feeling anxious, which I think we’re all doing right now — it would be a little abnormal not to be a little anxious — the antidote to anxiety is always control,” she said. “And since we can’t really control the trail of this disease, we turn to what we can control, and that’s why people shop. It’s like, ‘Well, I feel like I’m doing something, I feel like that I’m preparing. I feel like I’m taking control of the thing I can control, which is stockpiling.'”

As for why people, in particular, hoarded toilet paper, according to Yarrow, these kinds of panic buying could be a case of our primate social brains responding to news feeds full of glaring but sometimes disorienting visual cues — such as images of store shelves without paper products. “Toilet paper became kind of a thing that the media was particularly focused on, and that got people thinking about [it],” she said.

The German researchers set out to find solid empirical evidence to support the kind of hypotheses of Yarrow and others. They noted that in some cases, the demand for toilet paper increased by as much as 700 percent, leading to widespread shortages in supermarkets. In addition, “the resulting scarcity of toilet paper in some households has led to problematic consequences, such as the clogging of drains after people started using products other than toilet paper,” they wrote.

The team used social media to recruit 996 adults in 22 countries and had them complete an online personality inventory in six domains: emotionality (anxiety, fear, dependence, sentimentality); conscientiousness (organization, diligence, prudence, perfectionism); honesty-humility (sincerity, honesty, modesty); extraversion (social self-esteem, social daring, sociability); agreeableness (patience, forgiveness, gentleness, flexibility) and openness to experience (curiosity, creativity, unconventionality).

All your toilet paper is mine.
enlarge All your toilet paper is mine.

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Participants included information about their demographics, quarantine behavior and the extent to which they viewed COVID-19 as a threat. They were also asked how often they bought toilet paper in the past two weeks, how many packs they bought, how many rolls they had in stock at the time and whether this was a typical amount. The time frame for data collection ran from March 23 to March 29.

An earlier study had examined this behavior in light of the honesty-humility dimensions among UK residents, and found preliminary evidence that hoarding was caused by “a lack of solidarity”. But that study was not international and did not examine the other domains of personality, “leaving the role of personality, more broadly defined, unanswered,” the German authors wrote. Their own findings contradicted the British study: Honesty-humility did not appear to be a strong predictor for toilet paper hoarding in the PLOS ONE study.

“Toilet paper acts as a purely subjective symbol of safety.”

The researchers found that the strongest predictor of stockpiling was how many people felt threatened by COVID-19; the more scared they were, the more likely they would hoard the product. A person’s emotionality, in turn, is predictive of how threatened they feel, while people who score high on conscientious objection were more likely to stock up on toilet paper. Older people tend to install more toilets than young people — perhaps because they are more at risk for the disease and therefore more likely to opt for strict self-isolation — and Americans did so more than Europeans.

As Yarrow Ars pointed out, toilet paper hoarders aren’t exactly bad, selfish people; they are just scared. The German team agreed. “Even the most humble and moral individuals can lay out toilet paper as long as they feel sufficiently threatened by the pandemic,” they wrote. “Since stockpiling is objectively unrelated to saving lives or jobs during a health crisis, this finding supports the idea that toilet paper functions as a purely subjective symbol of safety.”

That said, the authors caution that the variables they included in their analysis accounted for only 12 percent of the observed variability in toilet paper hoarding. “This suggests that the degree to which people feel personally threatened by COVID-19 also depends on psychological factors not included in our study, or on malleable external factors such as risk management by and trust in local authorities,” they wrote. “We are still a long way from a full understanding of this phenomenon.”

DOI: PLOS ONE, 2020. 10.1371/journal.pone.0234232 (About DOIs).

By akfire1

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