Sun. Oct 2nd, 2022
You know it's crazy if they even take the letter "E" of the sign.
enlarge You know it’s crazy when they even take the letter “E” off the board.

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The world was a strange place even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has become even stranger. One of the strangest things about this socially distant new world is that a respiratory illness has made toilet paper worth its weight in gold. Why is everyone suddenly scrambling for toilet paper? Consumer behavior researcher Kit Yarrow suggests that our social primate brains respond to news feeds full of striking but sometimes disorienting visual cues.

Retail therapy at full throttle

Panic buying during a crisis is nothing new. Midwesterners make fun of anyone making Apocalypse French Toast before a snow storm, as store shelves are mysteriously empty of bread, eggs, and milk. On the coast, peanut butter is the must-have item in any hurricane season. In part, it’s reasonable to want to be prepared, Yarrow says. But panic buying is partly an attempt to gain a sense of control when the world feels 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,” Yarrow 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 I’m getting ready. I feel like I’m taking control of what I can control, which is stockpiling.”

“Some people who hoard, they’re not bad people and they’re not selfish people. They’re just scared people, and I think if they thought about their connection to others and their responsibilities to the community, they probably wouldn’t do it.” Yarrow told Ars.

It’s easy to see the logic — even if it’s irrational — behind hectic storage of soap or hand sanitizer. But why toilet paper?

Yarrow says that’s a little unusual. “I don’t think most people think about toilet paper during panic buying, like hurricanes and so on. This is kind of a first,” she told Ars. The toilet paper run (sorry, not sorry) is what happens when social media-driven communication meets the human instinct in the middle of a crisis.

The optical illusion of a deficiency

“We are social animals,” Yarrow told Ars. “In times that are really unprecedented and uncertain, we look to other people for clues about what to do. Unfortunately, other people do crazy things, so it makes us feel like we should do it too.”

And today, most of us find out what our fellow humans are doing through social media, or through news stories full of images and video. So the signals we get are very visual, which affects how we process certain information. Large, bulky items like toilet paper leave more noticeable, visible holes on store shelves than smaller items like canned tuna, especially when toilet paper takes up most of the aisle when tuna can only take up a few feet of shelf space.

“A photo of an empty toilet paper shelf is really much more dramatic than an empty tuna shelf, and a photo of someone walking out of the store with two large items of toilet paper is a more dramatic photo than a photo of someone walking out with a bag.” tuna,” Yarrow told Ars. “Toilet paper became kind of a thing that the media was particularly focused on, and that got people thinking about [it]†

Don’t keep the Charmin

So what should we do instead of building toilet paper fortresses?

“I’m not going to tell people not to be prepared, because I think there are so many ways that it’s satisfying for them, both practically – I think people need to be prepared – but also emotionally. It feels really good to introduce you to prepare,” Yarrow said.

But once people have what they really need, it’s time to look for other ways to gain a sense of control in an uncertain world.

“Keep in mind that we want to feel like we’re productive and in control in this weird, open, loose space of uncertainty that we’re in, so check what you can control,” Yarrow suggested.

Take some control over your socially distancing days by planning and establishing a routine; exercise some control over your environment by cleaning or organizing. And seek as much human connection as possible within the boundaries of social distancing: video chats, walks in the park or phone calls.

By akfire1

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