Why people stockpile toilet paper en masse

In times of uncertainty, people behave more like herd animals than at other times. When we are not sure what to do, our tendency is to follow others. We follow the social norm. This is not illogical: it is evolutionary adaptive behaviour to follow the crowd in times of uncertainty. For example, if a fire breaks out in a building with which we are unfamiliar, it is probably safe for us to follow the crowd towards an emergency exit. But why do we also do this when it comes to buying toilet paper when a lockdown is announced? Perhaps because we think that we’ll need a little bit more of it if we’re all sitting at home the whole day.

This kind of reasoning seems rational, and yet there are also other factors that contribute to this kind of stockpiling behaviour. Toilet paper is clearly visible in a shopping trolley. Right at the start of the lockdown, this purchase was immediately obvious when people came out of the supermarket with their trolleys. And it was especially apparent to people who were still queueing to go in. At that point, alongside the social norm, there is also a dominant sense of scarcity. Will there still be enough toilet paper on the shelves when I’m finally allowed in? And as toilet paper is a voluminous product, rapid sales of the same product immediately leave a striking gap on the shelves. And this kick-starts a vicious circle of scarcity and social norm.

Scarcity and social norms are strong, persuasive mechanisms from social psychology. They almost always work for everyone, even if you think that you are not influenced by them, and also if the behaviour in question is not necessary for the survival of the species. Sadly, smart sellers can also exploit this to the full: think of the last available hotel room when you’re booking a holiday, or the last pair of shoes in your size. Scarce products increase in value for us.

Are there solutions? Perhaps we could put toilet paper in smaller packages? A limit per customer is not such a good idea, because research has already shown that a sales limit of this kind actually creates scarcity, and that people will then all opt for the maximum amount. For example, a study showed that when there was a promotion for tinned soup, more tins were sold on average when a fixed limit was communicated. On days with “maximum 12 tins per customer”, an average of 7 tins were sold. This was around double in comparison to the days on which this sign was not displayed. That said, mechanisms of this kind could of course also provide the necessary nudge to repair our economy when we’re all finally allowed to go back to the shops.

References

  • Cialdini, R. B., & Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: The psychology of persuasion.
  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow (Kindle Edition).
  • Wansink, B., Kent, R. J., & Hoch, S. J. (1998). An anchoring and adjustment model of purchase quantity decisions. Journal of Marketing Research, 35(1), 71-81.

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