Even before the pandemic actually hit Europe and North America, reports were flooding of people stockpiling toilet paper (and other basic resources). Now, a new study has mapped the personality traits of those who were most likely to hoard toilet paper.
According to the research, people who felt more threatened by the pandemic were most likely to hoard, as were those who were more emotional and conscientious.
At first, the toilet paper hoarding was a bit of a gag, but then things got pretty serious. For a while, basic commodities such as toilet paper became scarce in supermarkets, as concerned shoppers prepared for a lockdown of several weeks. Some companies reported up to 70% increased sales in toilet paper, despite government advice to not panic buy, and in some areas, it was almost impossible to get any toilet paper because it was all sold out.
The gag was still running, but it has turned into a bit of a nervous laugh.
Now, the new study provides the first scientific insights into the psychological underpinnings of toilet paper stockpiling in the wake of a health crisis. The study could help us better prepare for similar events in the future.
The researchers surveyed 1,029 adults from 35 countries who were recruited through social media, asking the to fill out the Brief HEXACO Inventory, which maps out six personality traits -- Honesty-Humility (H), Emotionality (E), Extraversion (X), Agreeableness (A), Conscientiousness (C), and Openness to Experience (O). The researchers also mapped out the participants' demographic data, perceived threat level of COVID-19, quarantine behaviors, and toilet paper consumption in recent weeks.
Unsurprisingly, people who felt most threatened by the pandemic were most likely to hoard toilet paper -- this was the strongest predictor of "hoardness". But personality traits also played into this.
For instance, people who ranked higher on Emotionality tend to worry a lot and feel anxious are more likely to feel threatened and stockpile toilet paper. The personality trait of Conscientiousness, which includes traits of organization, diligence, perfectionism, and prudence was also a predictor of stockpiling. Researchers also note that older people stockpiled more toilet paper than younger people, and Americans tended to stockpile more than Europeans.
However, the study also notes that the variables studied explained only 12% of the variability in toilet paper stockpiling, which suggests that most psychological factors behind this behavior still remain unaccounted for.
In addition, the study's major limitation is its sample size. A thousand people is not that big of a sample size, especially when you're talking about 35 countries -- this is still a preliminary study.
So while the study raises some interesting points, we're still a way off from understanding the exact psychological mechanisms that led to toilet paper stockpiling (and yes, that is an actual sentence).
The researchers conclude:
"Subjective threat of COVID-19 seems to be an important trigger for toilet paper stockpiling. However, we are still far away from understanding this phenomenon comprehensively."
The study has been published in PLoS ONE.