Psychologists are delving into the reasons why people started mass buying toilet paper earlier this year.
Psychologists are delving into the reasons why people started mass buying toilet paper earlier this year.

Toilet paper hoarders unmasked at last

THEY were slammed as selfish on social media and branded "un-Australian" by Scott Morrison but the toilet paper hoarders of 2020 are conscientious types who were anxious about the impending virus, new research has suggested.

The study tracked the toilet paper consumption of more than 1000 people in 35 countries, who were assessed according to various self-declared personality traits.

The Swiss and German researchers found that older people tended to stockpile more than the young, while Americans and Canadians held greater stocks at home - an average of 12.7 rolls - compared to their European counterparts, who had an average of 8.9 rolls.

"The most robust predictor of toilet paper stockpiling was the perceived threat posed by the pandemic; people who felt more threatened tended to stockpile more toilet paper," the researchers stated in their paper, published today in the scientific journal Plos One.

People buying their toilet paper in bulk at Costco in Brisbane’s North Lakes, March 15, 2020. Psychologists are still researching what prompted the mass buying behaviour. Picture: AAP Image/Attila Csaszar
People buying their toilet paper in bulk at Costco in Brisbane’s North Lakes, March 15, 2020. Psychologists are still researching what prompted the mass buying behaviour. Picture: AAP Image/Attila Csaszar

"The personality domain of conscientiousness - which includes traits of organisation, diligence, perfectionism and prudence - was also a predictor of stockpiling," they said.

Australians were prodigious purchasers of toilet paper in March and April.

In emails to customers, Woolworth CEO Brad Banducci revealed that the supermarket chain sold a mind-boggling 39.7 million toilet rolls in a single week in mid March.

The frenzy gradually tapered off, with 20 million rolls sold the following week, 15 million the week after and 11.5 million the week after that.

Sales volumes only dropped to a sub-2019 level in the first week of May, Mr Banducci said.

Dr Tim Neal, a research fellow at the University of NSW who also studied the panic buying of toilet paper, said the degree of stockpiling could not be explained by personality types alone, and the "severity of government lockdown policy" would have had an impact on behaviour.

The question of whether panic buyers were selfish or just conscientious providers for their households was a difficult one to answer, he said.

"The nature of these panics is that it only takes a small proportion of the population to believe that there's going to be a problem in future toilet paper supply," he said.

"With just-in-time supply chains it doesn't actually take that much to empty the shelves, and get people to start thinking that they need to hoard as well."

Scenes of shoppers fighting over toilet rolls went all over the world. The above image is a still taken from footage filmed in Woolworths in Chullora, western Sydney, and uploaded to Twitter. Picture: Twitter
Scenes of shoppers fighting over toilet rolls went all over the world. The above image is a still taken from footage filmed in Woolworths in Chullora, western Sydney, and uploaded to Twitter. Picture: Twitter

Dr Neal said that the memory of the 2020 toilet paper shortage could actually prompt a reoccurence of the problem if another virus lockdown loomed - and there was even the potential for the problem to be worse because more people would anticipate it, he said.

But governments and supermarkets could also act in ways to prevent panic buying in future, he said.

"Because government policy acts as a strong signal, governments should try and give advance warning to supermarkets that this kind of thing could happen in the near future, and with advance warning supermarkets can announce rationing with any major lockdown announcement," Dr Neal said.

"If they were to do that before the panic buying starts that would go a very long way in stopping it from spiralling out of control."

Originally published as Toilet paper hoarders unmasked at last


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