What caused the toilet paper shortage in the US? Study suggests people's personality traits drove stockpiling

Fear and anxiety drove people to hoard toilet paper. Even highly organized and diligent individuals were also doing the same, says the study


                            What caused the toilet paper shortage in the US? Study suggests people's personality traits drove stockpiling
(Getty Images)

As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in the US, the demand for toilet papers grew by leaps and bounds, thanks to hoarding. A new study found that some personality types are the most likely to stockpile. These findings explain why some Americans hit the panic button and emptied grocery store shelves more than others. 

Fear and anxiety drove people to hoard toilet papers, the study found. "That was the most important finding in the study. Once you feel threatened by something, you start behaving irrationally. That is very human," study co-author Lisa Garbe, a doctoral student at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, told CNN. Furthermore, highly organized and diligent individuals were also doing the same.  

The study comes after some companies reported an increase of up to 700% in toilet paper sales, even after the government urged people not to engage in "panic buying". In mid-April, nearly half of American grocery stores had empty shelves.  About 48% of them ran out of toilet paper stock for some part of the day on April 19. In this study, researchers from Germany tried to see if personality behaviors had something to do with hoarding behavior.

So they surveyed 1,029 adults from 35 countries, including the US from March 23 to March 29, 2020. They asked participants to fill out questionnaires on their buying patterns, demographic information and psychology. They assessed six types of personalities — honesty-humility, emotionality, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience — and their connection to panic buying.

How much toilet paper a person tends to stockpile may depend on how threatened they feel by Covid-19 and, among other reasons, on their personality traits (Nori Blume)

The study noted that individuals ranking high on emotionality with traits such as fearfulness, anxiety, dependence and sentimentality were more likely to engage in hoarding. Another personality type to feature on the list was conscientiousness, whose attributes include organization skills, diligence, perfectionism and prudence. Similarly, the elderly stockpiled more than the younger population and Americans more than Europeans.

"This study tells us what we may have thought intuitively," Neda Gould, a clinical psychologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told NBC News. "People who felt threatened by Covid-19 were more likely to hoard, and people who tend to be more conscientious, that is those who are future-oriented and orderly, also tend to stockpile. It's likely that anxious individuals were hoarding because it gave them a sense of control when so much was out of control," Gould, who was not involved in the study, added.

She, however, thinks there is more to anxious people, adding that the trait can be a powerful force. For instance, these people are more likely to follow precautions such as staying home, wearing masks, or practicing social distancing. "If you're super anxious, your brain can be hijacked by that fear. So you don’t think about the societal impact," Gould added.

German researchers add that their study may not have factored in a few psychological explanations and situational factors. "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," Theo Toppe, co-author of the study, said in a statement. The study is published in PLOS ONE.

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