I have been asked quite often over the past couple of months about the rather odd fixation with hoarding toilet paper. Why not something more obviously of survival value such as cans of baked beans or sardines in tins? And why panic buy in a country like Australia, where toilet paper is actually manufactured in country and we don’t not need to rely on imports.
Good questions except that they make the mistake of assuming that people behave rationally, particularly in the face of threat and uncertainty. Freud, of course, would have made a great deal of why people would clamber for and even fight in the supermarket aisles over toilet rolls. It would be something to do with anal retention and the fear of not being able to retain its contents. I’m not into psychoanalysis but, he may well have a point.
In some respects, Freud might have been partly right because a lot of the behaviour we are seeing has to do with control. Anxiety mainly involves a sense of a loss of control, not of our bowels, but of our circumstances or ourselves. One way of not being overwhelmed with anxiety is to exert control in some way, even if that way is symbolic.
In short, buying big on toilet rolls provides a sense of control, even though we are not having any impact on the actual situation at all. Panic buying takes little effort nor imagination and is a visceral response from what we call the Lizard brain-that part of our brain that has to do with emotions and the fight or flight response.
Certain personality types who are more needful of certainty and a sense of control are more likely to hoard than others who are less anxious and probably more confident in their ability to manage their circumstances. There are, of course, those at the other end of the spectrum who would make the effort even make sure that they have enough food to last for a week-preparedness not being their long suit. It takes all sorts.
A lot of the behaviour we have seen in the COVID-19 such as ignoring health advice and going out and mixing in groups, for example, involves a deliberate flouting of the rules. The behaviour is an expression of, ‘You can’t tell me what to do.’ It seems as if putting self and others at risk is not a problem at all. And it’s not just young people engaging in these ‘devil may care’ behaviours. There are plenty of elderly people ignoring advice too.
This sort of behaviour is also a way of dealing with uncertainty and the anxiety it might produce. We call it denial, which is a completely unconscious mechanism to reduce anxiety by pretending the threat is not real.
Another interesting phenomenon is the finger pointing, spreading of misinformation and fighting on some social media sites. Anxiety and aggression go hand in hand, so I’m not surprised at some of the outrageous comments on media such as Facebook. Fear is fascinating and, you guessed it, leads to non-rational behaviour.
But, while we know that panic buying is a result of manufacturing a sense of control, why toilet rolls and not tins of sardines? There are some simple explanations and some more complex. The simple one is that there are more foodstuffs than toilet rolls. If beans are not available, then we can buy tinned soup. So, we don’t notice the disappearance of food items. As well as being the main thing we wipe our bums with, toilet rolls are big. When they disappear, it is noticeable and then people panic because it is hard to get. There is a perception that we will get caught short (sorry!).
The more complex reason gets back towards Freud again, I’m afraid, and has to do with it being a comfort item. The thought of being without it and the rather unpleasant results just adds to anxiety. And then, it just takes a few people to panic buy and we have another sort of pandemic.
What helps me deal with odd behaviour is to simply recognise that it is irrational and that the Lizard brain has taken over. Accepting the behaviour I see for what it is, rather than reacting to it, leaves me much calmer and even with an inner smile.