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Why did we hoard toilet paper? New research says it wasn't because of selfishness
TORONTO -- Think back to the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when toilet paper unexpectedly became one of the most valuable commodities in the world.
The quest to ensure we would be able to clean ourselves led to an armed robbery in Hong Kong, the introduction of "panic buying" into the global lexicon, and long lines and bare shelves at stores across North America even before the novel coronavirus was considered a serious threat.
In Canada and elsewhere, the shortages led to pleas from authorities to avoid unnecessary stockpiling of toilet paper and other items, even as major manufacturers maintained that the supply chain was not at risk.
There are probably a few words that come to mind for anyone thinking of those who helped themselves to many months' worth of toilet paper, making it much more difficult for others to get any at all.
According to new research, though, some of the words that best describe those toilet paper hoarders have nothing to do with selfishness.
Diligence, organization, dependence and sentimentality are some of the personality traits that correlate to those who stockpiled toilet paper as the pandemic began, the German and Swiss researchers say.
They reached this conclusion by surveying 996 people across 22 countries, including Canada, over one week in late March. At that time, the Canadian case count was rising rapidly, by hundreds a day for the first time, and every province had declared a state of emergency.
Survey respondents were asked to rate themselves in 24 different personality traits, as well as questions about their toilet paper-buying habits before and during the pandemic, COVID-19 restrictions where they live, and their perceptions of the threat posed by the virus.
The responses led the researchers to one clear conclusion: those who scored highly in conscientiousness – meaning they considered themselves more diligent and organized than most, among other traits – were more likely to have amassed a large supply of toilet paper.
"More conscientious people tend to stockpile more toilet paper," the researchers wrote.
"This finding is in line with the expectation that long-sighted and more orderly individuals engage in more stockpiling and does not support the counternarrative that conscientious individuals refrain from impulsive panic buying due to increased self-control."
There was also an indirect effect brought on by traits such as dependence and sentimentality. Those who scored highly in those measures of emotionality were more likely to report feeling threatened by the pandemic, and those who felt more threatened were more likely to have stocked up on toilet paper.
"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," the researchers wrote.
All of the above conclusions were consistent across North America and Europe, but there were some geographic differences. Europeans bought toilet paper more often than North Americans but kept smaller amounts around the home, which the researchers say could be because North American toilet paper often contains more rolls in one package.
Age was a factor too, as older respondents were more likely to purchase and stockpile toilet paper than younger ones. The researchers said this could be because older people were worried about their increased likelihood of suffering severe effects should they contract COVID-19, or because older people in some countries were asked to self-isolate before the rest of the population.
No evidence was found that gender, political attitude or local COVID-19 situation played any role in hoarding habits.