Covid-19 reflections: the ritual of hoarding toilet paper

Image description: Empty aisles where the toilet paper usually is, a Schnuck’s supermarket near Saint Louis

Of all the things to stockpile in the face of impending disaster, why do people choose toilet paper? If you were concerned about lines of supply being interrupted, there are more important things you can hoard. Things you can actually eat. After all, there are alternatives to toilet paper, including the bidet.

Marketing studies of hoarding began in the 1970s during the oil crisis, when in the wake of rationed oil, members of ostensibly affluent societies made panic runs on toilet paper and other commodities.

Stiff, Johnson and Tourk define hoarding as follows:

“[hoarding occurs] when the consumer’s current inventory of an item exceeds his inventory in previous periods while his expected consumption rate (taste) remains constant.”

As the authors note, scarcity is just one explanation for why hoarding occurs (for example, during wartime). How can we explain the hoarding of goods when there is no apparent scarcity? To understand the psychology of hoarding we need to go beyond rational explanations.

One potentially fruitful explanation is the epidemiology of representations. The anthropologist Dan Sperber outlined this approach, and authors such as Pascal Boyer and Hugo Mercier also contributed to its development. The epidemiology of representations takes as starting point that ideas and behaviors do not jump from brain to brain, but need to be reconstructed in each individual mind. Behaviors and beliefs that accord with ideas we already have, have a higher propensity of being copied. The extent to which ideas are catchy, seem intuitive and natural to us, explains why they occur.

The second drawing (star) is more culturally widespread than the first. Why is this? Sperber notes that the star has a clear procedure to it, is culturally more salient, and also is more symmetrical. This makes it a better candidate for cultural transmission. From: Sperber, An objection to the memetic approach to culture

People don’t just hoard anything. Hoarded goods tend to be easy to store. Under ordinary conditions, they tend to take up small part of a consumer’s budget. They are price inelastic (i.e., the price of the good changes little in response to demand of the good). This makes toilet paper an attractive good to hoard. In addition, toilet paper is bulky. Having your cart stuffed with this bulky item feels like you’re doing something. In the face of uncertain threat, you have the feeling you are being proactive.

Panic buying may be a ritual response to uncertainty (snow, hurricanes, pandemics) that people in a capitalist, consumer-focused culture engage in to regain some sense of control. In the case of ritual, there need not be a link between the action and the danger you’re trying to avert. As Cristine Legare and colleagues note, the link between ritual and what prompts it is opaque (check out these methods for curing the evil eye).

Psychologists, and philosophers since Hume have explained ritual as a way for us to gain control in uncontrollable situations. Hume argued that the primary origin of religion is not rationality, but existential fear. It’s worth quoting him at length in this passage, which resonates today:

We are placed in this world, as in a great theatre, where the true springs and causes of every event are entirely concealed from us; nor have we either sufficient wisdom to foresee, or power to prevent those ills, with which we are continually threatened. We hang in perpetual suspence between life and death, health and sickness, plenty and want; which are distributed amongst the human species by secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always unaccountable. These unknown causes, then, become the constant object of our hope and fear; and while the passions are kept in perpetual alarm by an anxious expectation of the events, the imagination is equally employed in forming ideas of those powers, on which we have so entire a dependance (Hume, Natural History of Religion, 1757)

Hume argues that this terrible sense of existential uncertainty leads us to posit agents who are the cause of all this mischief. Gods, ghosts, ghouls, goblins are the way we make sense of freak events. We try then to placate the gods, cajole them, please them. This is how worship of supernatural beings start.

More recent theories on the origin of ritual don’t require agents anymore. Our rituals are often directed at agents, but they need not be. Pascal Boyer and Pierre Lienard argue that rituals are meaningless actions we perform to subdue our fears. We are always on the lookout for threats and dangers. This is useful, as this helps us avert them. But what if threats are inescapable, as in the case of violent weather or pandemics? Rituals help us deal with this, without solving the problem.

Being involved in the precise minutiae of the ritual, for example, counting the number of times to walk around the altar, ritually cleaning the implements, keeps our working memory occupied. In this way, our minds are no longer fixated on the hazards around us that we are powerless to change anyway.

This theory has support from several observations: people tend to engage more in ritualistic actions when they are less in control (e.g., ritualistic actions are rampant in sports such as baseball with a significant luck factor). A related observation is by the classic anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s theory on magic. He observed that the Trobriand Islanders did not practice magic for lagoon fishing, which was low-risk and had a steady return. However, “in the open-sea fishing, full of danger and uncertainty, there is extensive magical ritual to secure safety and good results”.

Ritual thus serves to soothe us, to relieve our anxiety. It’s easy to become skeptical about ritual, and I reached that conclusion in an earlier paper (here), but I now think ritual is unavoidable.

If ritual is unavoidable, it’s crucial that we have the right rituals that at least help us transform ourselves in a positive way.

The early Confucian philosophers, notably Kongzi (Confucius) and Xunzi argued that we need the right rituals in order to stand in the right relationships. Social distancing thus presents a formidable challenge, as rituals are typically things we do in physical proximity of others. With many structured forms of ritual (e.g., church gathering, socializing in pubs) gone, we might resort to panic shopping as an improvised ritualistic way to deal with our fears. But it’s not a sensible ritual. For one thing, it generates a self-fulfilling scarcity that inconveniences others.

Finding the right rituals is especially important as social distancing can turn into isolation, and as fear of pandemics tend to fan the flames of xenophobia. Studies (e.g., here) indicate that people who are prompted with fear about disease tend to become less positive of immigrants. So we need rituals that help–keeping in mind social distancing–to not make us become too isolationist. Something to think about in the next few weeks.


  1. Very nice! Also, as many have noted, toilet paper is linked to hygiene – a cleanliness response to the threat of viral contamination or pollution. Yay for rituals! I like Malinowski’s account of magic, but I think it’s not deep enough. I suspect a deeper analysis will come from some modal ideas. I’ve toyed with the idea that magical spells are names for classes of desired possible worlds.


    • I love the idea that magical spells are names for classes of desired possible worlds! It sounds like a cool idea of magic that I haven’t encountered yet in that form (though I am not an habitual fantasy reader). Did you write any papers/books on that topic?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s