Rush on toilet paper a symptom of people acting as others act

Costco has been selling out of toilet paper since news spread that the first COVID-19 case was detected in Oregon last weekend. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

As word that the first case of COVID-19 had reached Oregon last week, home supplies flew of the shelves. Stores sold out of hand sanitizer, wipes and face masks.

But most perplexing of all was toilet paper.

Over the weekend, Salem’s Costco had a run on the product as people headed to the wholesale warehouse in droves. On Friday, March 6 the store was sold out of toilet paper.

Lauren Frank, an association professor of communication at Portland State University, said when people face something new that feels threatening or uncertain, they first determine how to respond.

The primary way people figure out the appropriate response to something is to look at what other people are doing, she said.

So, if people are stocking up on toilet paper en masse, Frank said, “We feel like we need to go and stock up on it as well.”

As we look to each other for social norms, Frank said people feel their response is appropriate “as evidenced by the fact that other people are buying toilet paper.”

“It does go then deeper, that people are also seeing my local store is beginning to run low on toilet paper, therefore I must buy some now,” she said.

Frank said in moments that are particularly scary, people look for tangible things they can do that they feel will keep them safe.

“We like feeling like we have greater control when it feels like something is threatening,” Frank said.

The shelves that held Costco toilet paper sat empty on Monday, March 2. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Bill Griesar, a psychology professor at PSU, said people are understandably anxious about the novel coronavirus, which makes it difficult consider what they need to do to make better decisions.

“Anxiety also makes it tough to resist impulsive actions, like buying crates of toilet paper (especially if you see others doing this too),” Griesar said in an email.  

To reduce that anxiety, he said: “If there are clear steps to take, clear activities, things you can do to effectively prepare – like gathering more useful supplies, properly washing your hands, staying home when you’re feeling ill – that can significantly reduce anxiety for many, and improve their decision making.” 

Frank said people should have emergency stocks at home so they don’t have buy supplies when a crisis happens.

“It’s just a good idea generally for those in the Pacific Northwest to be prepared in case of emergency,” she said.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.