What we know

One of the first repercussions of the COVID-19 virus in America was shelves missing toilet paper rolls.

There was no rational reason for people to buy toilet paper in excess. We use about a roll a week on average, and even in countries that went into full lockdown due to COVID-19 precautions, grocery stores remained open. Toilet paper is produced consistently in America and is regularly available.

So why did people hoard toilet paper? It seems it started with a report that diarrhea and other gastrointestinal issues are the first signs of COVID-19 so it would be needed. Some reported hearing that other countries ran out of toilet paper (but couldn’t cite the source or statistics). Additionally, rumors of “being on lockdown” for a long and undefined time started spreading, and people began buying bulk necessities. To many, this included toilet paper.

“Yeah, this particular friend said, “I’m a spoiled rotten American and I need my toilet paper.” I can’t imagine. I can’t. I can’t. I would give up some food before toilet paper.” — Kim

Social and traditional media continued to report on the “toilet paper shortage” and when people went into the stores, their eyes validated the rumors. It wasn’t just about the toilet paper — it was about who would win and survive. Fights broke out, people filled their carts and took whatever rolls they could find for themselves.

Being so focused on ourselves, we didn’t realize that our actions had ramifications. We bullwhipped the supply chain, causing all kinds of problems in factories and delivery systems to keep up with this artificial demand. We emptied the shelves and created more panic than rationally justified.


I think we all know this is not about toilet paper. So what is it about?

To find out, we used Insider Insight™ a proprietary on-demand and near real-time qualitative consumer research method created by Motivate Design and used by many of its clients to inform business decisions. It relies on a network of Insiders to have conversations with their personal networks about a topic we give them (Turns out this approach is as accidentally perfectly-designed for a quarantined, isolated world where we are only talking to people we know and remotely). The Insiders and their connections record their conversations and send them to us. We analyze and synthesize the conversation threads to find out what people who know each other tell each other. We asked five Insiders to speak to people who bought over 25 rolls of toilet paper in the past week to tell us why. What do people who stockpiled feel now that they have the toilet paper in their garages? Did they overreact, or was it a smart move? We had the preliminary insights within 24-hours. (Normally we would conduct a survey or more traditional round of research after Insider Insight on the questions or ideas our clients found most interesting or relevant to their work.)

What we found
We are designed to take control.

Irrational behaviors stem from managing our emotional state and taking back control when things feel out of control in our lives. We want to feel that we are prepared, taking care of ourselves and people who rely on us, making smart decisions and taking action to survive versus being passive and waiting for death to take us. We’re ready to do something, anything, to keep us alive.

When communication is confusing and we hear conflicting advice and don’t know who to trust, we go with the worst-case version. And to process the advice and scenario planning that we are subconsciously doing, we map new experiences to what we know. An uncontrollable virus gets mapped to the Spanish Flu, and the media categorizing it as a “pandemic” kicks in our cognitive bias to group COVID-19 with that. We then take action from that fear-based, scarcity-based mindset. And in this stressed mental state, our reasoning is hampered and we operate automatically (and irrationally) from our fight or flight sympathetic nervous system. If people are buying toilet paper, I must need it too.

“Yes. In a world of extreme uncertainty and where every day your world is changing, your normal existence is no longer normal. I’m not at work. I’m not able to go out. I feel uncomfortable if I go out. There’s so much uncertainty. Gosh darn it, if having toilet paper gives me a little bit of relief from this insanity, then I’m going to have toilet paper. If I have 15 cans of creamed corn that I don’t even like in the pantry, and it makes a little bit of comfort in a very uncomfortable world right now, so be it.” — Kim

We follow the herd, especially in times of stress.

In times of panic, stress, and uncertainty, we do what others do. We don’t want to be wrong about needing it, so we start grabbing whatever everyone else is grabbing. Even if it doesn’t make sense. And more seems better than less, so we grab as much as we can.

“I feel stupid for having bought this toilet paper at this ridiculous price. Really, for no good reason.” — Clint

“Yeah, she started it and then everybody else started talking about toilet paper. And before I knew it, I got swept up in the fury and I panicked. Man, I panicked.” — Kim

Why did you buy it? “Because everybody else is getting it. I’m a follower.

“So just people saying that this was the end of the world, the apocalypse, that we are going to be shut in our house by the government. That’s kind of a scare tactic, that we’re going to be locked in our house. And I mean you can hunt for food, you can use tap water for any old amount of time, but what are you going to use for toilet paper I saw the video from the news channels of people just buying it in hordes and I kind of thought that, oh maybe they’re onto something that I’m not aware of. It’s not going to hurt me to spend X amount of dollars on toilet paper, so maybe I should get on that train and start buying it. So I think it was definitely a fear factor or following the crowd, if you will. Do I think this whole thing’s going to last for months on end and I’m going to be happy that I bought as much as I did? No. But again, my first point, you never know. So am I regretful? No.” — Jeff

Many mentioned that they could feel that their behavior was irrational, but they didn’t trust their own judgment because everyone else was buying it up so quickly. They assumed there was something they didn’t know and didn’t want to regret not buying it later. Toilet paper made enough sense to them — if locked in my home, it’s something I need, and if I buy too much, it’s not like it will go to waste. In panic mode, it made sense to buy a lot.

We protect ourselves. It’s survival of the fittest

If I don’t have toilet paper, what else won’t I have? Will I have enough money? Enough food for my family? The general sentiment is things will get worse before they get better, and no one knows what worse means. Things are so up in the air, and there are so many unknowns, that we are just operating on autopilot. The need to protect is instinctual; the need to hoard like an addiction.

You don’t think you have enough? “I have maybe like 24, 30 rolls. I need more.” — Shaune

Toilet paper served as the perfect enabling agent — it kept running out which kept us feeling right and justified our behavior and desire to need more. Even if an 80-year old who needs it doesn’t get any because you bought all of it. When probed about the secondary effects of their mass purchase, they simply wrote it off with sayings like, “I have to watch out for number one.”

Jeff: “Yeah just the fear that there wouldn’t be any left for me and I’d rather buy everything that I can to keep my household at a status quo because, in a circumstance like what’s going on now, you kind of have to look out for yourself.”

Victoria: But what about the people who maybe were in line behind you that needed toilet paper? Did you think about anybody else? What was racing through your mind when you…

Jeff: I saw the people in front of me had large amounts of toilet paper and I saw in my cart that I had large amounts. I wasn’t looking behind me. Everyone says don’t live in the past and looking in your rearview mirror is kind of frowned upon. So I was looking straight ahead.

Victoria: That’s a bit literal.

Jeff: Yeah. But if you think about it, if toilet paper is being coveted so much and I bought a lot, never know… What if it turns south, this whole thing turns worse than we thought it would and now there’s no more toilet paper? Now you can use toilet paper as a barter system.

Victoria: “Were you scared of not having it or were you scared of other people having more than you?”

Jeff: “Maybe a little bit of both. I was definitely scared that people would have more because what if they wanted to barter for things and now they have the upper hand. But I also thought that I needed that much.”

Victoria: Are you worried about other people who maybe didn’t get any?

Jeff: Well, that’s on them. They should have probably found out where all these toilet paper rolls were being sold and jumped on that train.

It wasn’t me. Blame the media

The media started the frenzy, and then reported on the frenzy they started, which in turn created more frenzy.

“I think it was media, all media.” — Shaune

“I saw Facebook friends in the US, for example, who were saying that they don’t know where to get toilet paper. They need some, and they can’t find any. And what are they going to wipe their asses with? That could have been us, you know, .. I wonder actually if someone’s going to figure out the social media paper trail and figure out how did this thing domino and focus on toilet paper? I think you’ve nailed it. I think that’s what it is.” — Evelyn

The media told me to do it so I did it. It was remarkable to read how people didn’t question — they just assumed that it was accurate. And in the absence of any information telling them otherwise, they went with it. The media made it seem like anything can happen, and with that as the headline, their minds immediately went to the worst-case and what they would need if that happened.


Notify NYC text messages about COVID-19

Even now, NYC is sending notices asking people not to bulk buy. Do you think I will listen if my friends on social media are reporting that there is and will be a shortage? No, and it will make me trust the government less out of fear that they aren’t telling me the truth.

It was a way to attain power

There are so many things that could have been bought in survival and fear mode. Why toilet paper? Why so much toilet paper? These actions weren’t just about taking care of their needs, it was also about having more than others, and being able to use that supply as currency should they need it. Even when they felt like they had enough, they justified getting more because “I can always use it later. It’s not like it will go bad.” One even mentioned it was like an addiction.

“Yeah, we’re still using the same amount, not a lot, per week, per month, whatever. But I have lots downstairs, probably more than I should have, but I purchased it just in case. And if there ever came a time that somebody needed it you could trade it for money, trade it for goods? It’s a new currency.” — Jeff

Beyond having more as currency, it was also about being the smarter, savvier, right one — the one that has in a group of have nots. No one wanted to be “that person” that didn’t listen and buy when they should have. They didn’t want to be ridiculed and singled out as the person who wasn’t smart enough to buy when they should have.

“Well, it all kind of started when the Coronavirus broke out in Japan. A coworker of mine said her husband panicked and went out and bought $400 worth of supplies, including huge double packs of toilet paper. And me being me, I made fun of her and a few days went by and I started to hear about other people and I was like, it’s kind of like that thing where you never play the lottery, but when everybody around you plays the lottery and you’re like, “Oh man, if they win, I’m going to be the only one here and I’m going to hate myself.” So then I started thinking, what if I’m the only one without toilet paper and I have to beg all my friends for a role, I’m not going to be that person. So I came to social pressure and I went looking for toilet paper and I bought it. I’m one of those…Because as a joke I said, no toilet paper, because as a joke one day I said, “Listen all you toilet paper hoarders, if I can’t find toilet paper, this is donate to Kim’s toilet paper supply and y’all are going to have to give me a six pack of toilet paper.” And it was a joke. And then as the day went on, I actually went to my friend whose husband spent $400 and I said, “Listen, if I can’t find toilet paper, will you legit give me some.” She was like, “Yes, absolutely.” So then it became like the daily broadcast. Kim did you get toilet paper? No, Kim didn’t get toilet paper. Kim, I know where to get toilet… It was like the secrets in that- — There’s too many what-ifs in this society right now. Too many. And so you control the little bit you can control. — Kim

The “what ifs” were scarier than the actual virus, which drove the need to control, take charge, and protect themselves first. Toilet paper is something only humans need (and one argued something only Americans need), so it symbolized much more than something that can be traded.

They began thinking back to periods they had heard about that frightened them and thinking in a hypothetical worst-scenario future to how to be in a position of power if things are out of their control. They were operating everywhere but the present and not rationally thinking about if they needed the thing they were buying.

So what? Now what?

Typically, my job is to help brands make sense of these kinds of findings. So what did we learn about the new post-COVID-19 personas?

Some are in mindset A: reacting. In fight or flight and they aren’t thinking- just trying to survive. They are operating from that scarce mindset and assuring that their basic needs are met. It’s panic based behavior that often leads to behaviors and thoughts that we aren’t always proud of when we reflect later. They are trying to get control in a situation where they don’t have it in whatever way they can. Just do what others do, follow social media, and assume that as long as they are taking care of themselves, it’ll be fine.

There’s going to be a long period of uncertainty, and what we do during this time will create a new normal for how we live, work and interact with one another. And that means things are going to change. And change causes stress for people, especially when they feel out of control. Things are going to change and we don’t know-how. In times of uncertainty, agility and maybe even a little risk-taking is needed and rigidity and freezing in place are toxic, yet our brains are designed to keep us safe and will make that agility and risk-taking harder than usual.

How are you factoring in these personas into your brand outreach? What do customers want from you when this is all over? Where’s the opportunity? What are the positive “what ifs” that get us in a place of ideation, creative thinking and seeing problems as opportunities? How might you help them navigate the new normal in your space?

This is a huge opportunity for an internal shift which in turn will completely change your external reality. How will you settle into the new normal and stand out? This is what we do, so if we can help your business, hit us up. We’re happy to share our know-how (or toilet paper) with you.