Why does the coronavirus pandemic have people stocking up on toilet paper?

Yes, there's a practical need for toilet paper, but there's also a psychological reason people are scrambling to buy a lot of it during this time.
/ Source: TODAY

We’ve all seen it, whether in person or in pictures splashed across social media: people stocking up on toilet paper as the country prepares to hunker down at home for what could be a long stretch of time in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Supermarket shelves have been wiped bare of everything from milk and bread to soap and wipes, but why do people feel the need to buy toilet paper during this time?

Dr. Thea Gallagher, assistant professor and director of the Outpatient Clinic at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, says while it's OK to make sure we don't run out of such a basic necessity, there's also an underlying psychological reason driving this behavior.

"I think that people feel like there’s not much that they can control right now," she told TODAY. "There’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of information going around, a lot of impending doom, and so I think part of it helps people to feel like they have a little bit of control over what’s happening to them in their lives. If there’s one thing I can do it’s at least be prepared.”

The idea that purchasing mass amounts of toilet paper will give us a handle on the situation is not necessarily real, though.

“It’s an absolute illusion because this whole thing is rolling out and there’s very little we can do," she said. "Yeah, we can wash our hands and have some control, but that’s not ultimate control and I think it’s an illusion of control. I think that’s what people are trying to hold onto right now.”

It’s tough to gauge how much toilet paper is really needed because no one knows how long the coronavirus threat will last or when — or if — we will return to our everyday lives, but it is certainly a product that people don’t want to run out of, especially while riding out this pandemic.

Shelves normally stocked with hand wipes, hand sanitizer and toilet paper sit empty at a Target store as people stockpile supplies due to the outbreak of the coronavirus in Arlington, Virginia.Win McNamee / Getty Images

Watching others stockpile toilet paper could have a domino effect, too, in which we feel compelled to follow the lead of others.

"If you weren’t freaking out and then all of the sudden you’re like, ‘Maybe I should be. Everyone is. What am I not doing?’ And then instead of maybe looking at the facts you start kind of looking at other people," Gallagher said.

The doubters, though, think scooping up as much toilet paper as possible is an unnecessary precaution.

“The world is not coming to an end. But if it is all that bottle water and toilet paper you are buying will not get used,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted Friday.

“I really hope there’s a no refund policy for toilet paper,” someone else commented, while sharing a picture of shoppers lined up with carts full of it. That person also used the hash tag #panicbuying.

Toilet paper has become coveted currency during the pandemic. One New Jersey restaurant, in an attempt to drum up business, even went so far as to offer free rolls to customers.

"First 10 tables tonight will go home with a free roll of toilet paper !" the Glen Rock Inn shared on Facebook on Friday.

The question remains, though: Why is toilet paper so in demand during this public health crisis? Why this item in particular during a health crisis?

"One of our basic needs is being able to take care of ourselves from that perspective and I wonder if it’s like, ‘If I lose everything, I don’t want to lose my basic dignity. And this is the one thing that I don’t think I could live without.’ That might feel apocalyptic if we didn’t have toilet paper," Gallagher said.

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"It keeps people feeling safe that they have this one thing that could at least keep them from being in complete squalor,” she added.

Gallagher believes people are trying to find ways to cope with the coronavirus anxiety they feel, although hoarding toilet paper may actually be a counterproductive way to do so.

“The anxiety is really one the main power players in all this and we really need to keep calm and manage that panic that can get out of control,” she said.