Why Do People Hoard Toilet Paper? A Look At Irrational Behaviors In Uncertain Times

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A customer walks down the toilet paper aisle at La Unica Supermarket Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Greenville, S.C. (Richard Shiro/AP)
A customer walks down the toilet paper aisle at La Unica Supermarket Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Greenville, S.C. (Richard Shiro/AP)

Humans, for all their intellectual capacity, are great at making irrational decisions.

We text and drive. We don’t make time to get a flu shot. In a pandemic situation, we hoard toilet paper, says behavioral economist and Duke University professor Dan Ariely.

In his book “Predictably Irrational,” Ariely explores why humans consistently behave in seemingly nonsensical ways. Ariely says in times of crisis, our faulty decision-making is exacerbated.

For example, consider the nationwide scramble for toilet paper. When we see the toilet paper shelf at the grocery store only half full, we panic.

“You basically say to yourself, ‘This must be something I need to get very quickly and let me get a lot of it so I don't run out.’ ” he says. “And then the next person sees less and less and less. So it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

In general, our response to crises is flawed. Our first mistake, he says, is not thinking ahead.

“We don't pay much attention to things that will happen in the future, even if this future is two weeks from now,” he says. “And we don't pay much attention to things that are invisible like viruses.”

These human shortcomings compounded as the COVID-19 began to spread in the U.S., says Ariely. That led to slowed government action and collective apathy to the virus’ threat even as the number of cases rose steadily — and then exponentially — across the nation.

Another human pitfall that makes the virus dangerous is selfishness, he says.

“We do what is selfishly good for us and not what’s good for other people necessarily,” he says. “So people who are supposed to stay at home because they might be sick, get very bored and they go out and contaminate other people.”

Ariely says the impulse to defy stay-at-home guidelines is fundamentally a “public goods” problem.

“What's interesting about public goods problems is, as long as everybody participates, everybody gets a lot of benefits,” he says. “And when people start defecting or betraying the public good, lots of bad things happen. And in a situation like a pandemic, it's enough that a small percentage of people don't adhere to the rules and they can hurt everybody.”

Now, health experts and some government officials find themselves at odds. President Trump has said he wants life to go back to normal by Easter to get the economy back on track. At the same time, public health experts warn that returning to normal life before the number of cases has truly subsided poses major risks.

In response, the president and his allies received criticism for putting the health of the economy over the health of Americans.

“The sad reality is that we've always had a tradeoff between money and saving lives. This is not something new,” Aureli says.

For now, he says, we can choose to make the most of our time in quarantine.

“It's an opportunity to start new habits, new routines like exercise, eat better, spend time with your family,” he says. “It's also an opportunity to start worse habits, like not exercising, overeating and developing addiction to social media and the news.”

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Lynsey Jeffery adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on March 25, 2020.



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