Whether or not you buy into the whole “don’t hoard toilet paper” thing, COVID-19 has ensured that, where once there was Angel Soft on supermarket shelves, there is now only silence. All of this raises the question, “What the heck is going on?” Well, we have an answer to that.
The reasoning behind the recent toilet paper boom is multifaceted and layered, much like toilet paper itself. In an interview with Time, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the George Washington University School of Medicine Mary Alvord stated that the draw towards toilet paper in times of crisis is practically a primal instinct. She explained:
“We all eat and we all sleep and we all poop. It’s a basic need to take care of ourselves. There is comfort in knowing that it’s there.”
The problem? It’s not there. “It” being the availability of toilet paper, of course. While disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes are relatively predictable, appearing at around the same time every year, the novel coronavirus popped up fast and mean. Additionally, it wasn’t until it had already spread that authorities at the federal level acknowledged that the virus posed any kind of threat, which led to a flashpoint of panic-buying when the gravity of the situation was felt all at once.
The worst part? It just keeps getting worse. Psych Central lists several possible reasons for America’s sudden love affair with toilet paper, and they all point to a problem that’s being blown out of proportion.
Firstly, they state that, when one person starts hoarding a necessity, they can unwittingly set an example for others to follow. The more people see mountains of Cottonelle being piled into a grocery cart, the more people will think “that seems like a good idea.” It gets more pronounced when news outlets broadcast pictures of empty grocery shelves with single packs of one-ply rolling along like tumbleweeds in a ghost town.
And then there’s control. When times get tough, we like to feel like we have a handle on something, even if it’s a small something like personal cleanliness. We might not be able to actively combat a worldwide contagion, but we can sure as shootin’ stock up on toilet tissue. It’s cheap, it’s handy, and even if everything dies down fast, it’s not like it hurts to have around. That’s called “zero-risk bias,” and it’s a real thing.
In case you’re worried, America is in roughly zero danger of running out of toilet paper. For one thing, we make most of it here, as Business Insider points out, and the 10% or so that’s imported from other countries comes from Canada and Mexico.
Even if we did run out, which, again, we won’t, your average American runs through 100 rolls of TP every year, or about a roll every three and a half days. It would take some seriously ambitious wiping to run through even a grocery run’s worth in the worst of circumstances.
As fans of logic everywhere can attest, the best way to stop a potential shortage would be to stop the hoarding, unfortunately, it appears that recent events have taken their toll. Consumer confidence is at a low, and when that happens, people stockpile food. They buy miracle cures. They get really, really concerned about basic products that we may or may not have collectively come to take for granted.
It could also be that we’ve all accepted what’s in our hearts and decided that the fastest route to happiness comes through living more like the Charmin Bears. They’re the happiest family on TV. It only makes sense.