Lesson 4: The panic and human response - The Toilet Paper Effect

COVID-19 has caused huge disruptions to the way we live our lives. However, everything will eventually get to some normality again. But it will be a new norm.

Data detail during COVID-19

I’ll be posting these insights regularly with the fourth lesson shown below. Data is pivotal in all of the lessons presented. They are brief and personal views. Feel free to comment and contribute. I am expecting differences of opinion. Some of the topics are somewhat controversial. Some lessons learnt are however plainly obvious.


  • Panic buying was the first initial human response to the pandemic. Our fight and flight mechanisms kicked into overdrive. Like a horror movie, shoppers acquired copious amounts of product, filling their trolleys indiscriminately without due respect for others. Neither did people recognise their behaviour and subsequent implications.
  • Other than what we see during a war, this was humanity at its absolute worst.
  • It was counterintuitive. Unlike the events in China where everyone was in lockdown almost immediately, in western countries (Australia included) the initial lockdown was a suggestion.
  • This sent panic into overdrive. Rather than stay away from other people, there was a mad rush to supermarkets and hardware stores. This saw a large concentration of people in a single locale risking contraction and spread. People risked passing on and/or contracting Covid-19 without considering the implications of their actions.

Why did we panic?

  • Response to other people panic buying
  • Control – refer Waleed Aly
  • Secure food and consumables for the immediate future
  • Manage anxiety
  • Biology- “…the amygdala, the emotional centre of the brain, wants us to get out of harm’s way immediately—and it doesn’t care how we avoid the lion.”

Why Toilet Paper?

  • In many respects, this behaviour was totally unhealthy. After all, none of the main Covid-19’s symptoms (fever, dry cough, and tiredness) had anyone ‘running’ to the bathroom
  • It defies belief that one of the first things to be devoured off the supermarket shelves was the humble toilet paper
  • Where in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs does toilet paper get a mention? It does not directly meet psychological, safety, love/belonging, esteem or self-actualisation needs. - After all, we were reassured by supermarkets and government that we had plentiful supplies of toilet paper in warehouses across the country and the world. There was never a shortage of toilet paper. So why toilet panic buying?


Human Behaviour Humans, across all layers of society, especially during a pandemic, are essentially selfish (refer below to my skew of Maslow’s version of Humans Hierarchy of Needs, which is Human’s Motivational Drivers Resulting from a Pandemic). They first try to meet their own deep seeded needs, followed by meeting the needs of their loved ones, family, friends etc. When the pandemic became ‘real’, panic buying may seem justifiable to help deal with an individual’s immediate survival needs, but in reality, is more irrational than intelligent. This is what behavioural scientists call Herd Behaviour. This effect is apparent when people do what others are doing instead of using cognition and their own intelligence to make independent decisions. Whilst typically seen in financial stock/security exchange meltdowns, the idea of herding has a long history in philosophy and crowd psychology and would in part explain the toilet paper run. Of course, toilet paper was just the initial irrational buy, other products followed including meat/pasta/flour (various other foods too), refrigerators, sanitisers, gym equipment etc. all devoured within days.

Human Response

Given that crowd panic will occur, what are the key takeaways from the experience? How do we prevent similar runs (pardon the pun)? How and who is best placed to manage these types of behaviours? Or do we just let things ride and leave every man, woman and child to fend for themselves?

The amount of information that is captured almost instantaneously nowadays is mind-boggling. It defies belief that between:

  • Social media networks,
  • Banks and financial institutions (I include card schemes VISA, MasterCard, China UnionPay),
  • Governments, and
  • Technology platforms

We* failed to take ownership of the situation. The data available to all of these groups of organisations was/is incredible and yet panic and anxiety still resulted.

Let’s put this into some perspective:

  • Social platforms know instantaneously through data feeds when panic sets in, or something goes literally ‘viral’
  • Banks and financial institutions know in real or near real-time what is being purchased, at which merchants, dollar spend amounts, time of purchase, persona of buyers, product categories acquired etc.
  • Technology platforms and their partners (I include online retailers here, like for example Amazon, eBay, Alibaba etc.) and include Apple, Microsoft, Google, Twitter, Samsung etc. know instantly what is being acquired, what is being said, what people are thinking
  • Governments play multiple roles and have resources to fill the gap of societal failure. Apart from traditional roles like health, welfare, education, defence etc. governments have enough information and power to take the lead where industry and corporations fail.

An abundance of data is immediately available to limit the amount of panic experienced with COVID-19. We must not rely on governments alone to face pandemics. This is fraught with dangers. Social platforms, financial institutions, technology platforms along with governments have the responsibility to play a major role in dealing with these types of situations. For example, managing the run on toilet paper, meat and refrigerators can be influenced immediately by the parties mentioned above. They all have the information, smarts and capability to enable a more prudent outcome rather than the resulting commercial feeding frenzy that we saw during the peak of the panic. There were no winners (commercially or socially) as a result of the panic buying of toilet paper and must never be allowed to happen again.

*I use the word “we” here to cover all people because we all have a say and “we” are in this situation as a collective like it or not.

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