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Just Who Hoarded All That Toilet Paper?

Older adults, worriers and perfectionists were more likely to stockpile during the pandemic

Close up shot of empty shelves of toilet paper in a supermarket.
MARC BRUXELLE / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

As they prepared to ride out the COVID-19 outbreak at home, nervous shoppers — like a plague of locusts — began descending in mid-March to wipe retail stores clean of toilet paper and create a global shortage.

The run on bathroom tissue had government leaders urging consumers to refrain from panic buying and left others wondering just who was doing all this hoarding. A study published in the online journal PLOS One found that age was a factor.

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"With increasing age, people tend to stockpile more toilet paper.” The study suggests that older people may have been more eager to prepare for strict self-isolation because they are more prone to experiencing more severe symptoms of the viral disease.

"People who feel more threatened by the pandemic stockpile more toilet paper. Given that stockpiling is objectively unrelated to saving lives or jobs during a health crisis, this finding supports the notion that toilet paper functions as a purely subjective symbol of safety,” according to the study.

Americans also stockpiled more toilet paper than Europeans, which the study suggested may be because of larger U.S. packaging — of up to 36 rolls, compared to Europe, which has up to 16 rolls. Not mentioned is that bidets, water sources used for washing below the belt, are more widely used in Europe than in the U.S.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, conducted the study. From March 23 to 29, they surveyed more than 1,000 adults from 35 countries, including 250 U.S. adults.

As to what personality factors make some people more prone than others to fear the pandemic — and hence cause them to stockpile more toilet paper — the researchers concede much of it is elusive. But they found about 20 percent of the hoarding could be explained “based on people's dispositional tendency to worry a lot and generally feel anxious."

They also suggested another predictor of stockpiling was among people with “conscientious” personalities, which includes traits of “organization, diligence, perfectionism and prudence."