Lucas Center Blog

Toilet Paper and the American Psyche

March 26, 2020  / Bill Reynolds, PhD  / Tags: behavioral economics, psychology, Humor, covid

Why toilet paper? Admit it, this question has been nagging you since this infernal virus began insinuating itself into the bloodstreams and psyches of your friends and neighbors sometime in early March. Canned goods…check. Hand sanitizer…check. Masks…check. Water…(OK, it’s not a hurricane, we have electricity, and the toilets still flush—assuming people have gotten the message that you can’t put Lysol wipes into the sewer system, but we’ll give people the benefit of the doubt on this one.)…check. But toilet paper?

I’m hesitant to acknowledge the amount of time I’ve spent thinking about this question, which I’m sure says something about my own psyche…but this isn’t about me. We’re here for them (or you, if you’re one of them):  the hoarders who have cleared the shelves of every last roll of bathroom tissue in the Greater South. What is up with you? Of course, given how much time I’ve spent thinking about this question (usually in the location where I do my best thinking), I’ve constructed some preliminary theories to explain the TP-hoarding phenomenon. Unfortunately, they’re all too scatological to recount here.

Fortunately for all of us, there are experts out there who have done the hard work of constructing theoretically-grounded, clearly articulated, and, in some cases, at least, humor-free explanations for our newly acquired obsession with TP. (We’re all Mr. Whipple now.) When you need a break from more pressing concerns, I recommend a recent piece from The New Yorker and one from Psychology Today. The literary set has always been enamored of psychoanalysis, and you’ll find a field day for Freudians in the New Yorker piece. Here’s a little flavor of what you can expect:

  • “Controlling cleanliness around B.M.s is the earliest way the child asserts control,” Andrea Greenman, the president of the Contemporary Freudian Society, said. “The fact that now we are all presumably losing control creates a regressive push to a very early time. So, I guess that translates in the unconscious to ‘If I have a lifelong supply of toilet paper, I’ll never be out of control, never be a helpless, dirty child again.’ ” And,
  • Is the panic-buying of toilet paper primarily egoistic? Not according to Susan Signe Morrison, the author of “Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics.” “Jesus’ corporal acts of mercy include caring for sick people. Wiping someone’s bottom is not specifically mentioned, but when you think of tending to infants or old people who can’t control their fecal production . . . ” Morrison said, trailing off with a delicacy befitting the subject matter. “If we don’t have toilet paper, will we revile our family members who aren’t clean in the way we expect them to be?”

Cognitive-behavioral theory has dominated psychology for decades now, and even the economists are involved in the behavioral modification game through the discipline of behavioral economics. You can find their explanations in the Psychology Today piece. (Warning:  They’re nowhere near as fun as the Freudians. Even when you try to “soften” the discipline by adding “behavioral,” it’s still economics, and there’s a reason it’s called “the dismal science.”) Selections below:

  • People worrying that they will be caught short, rush to the shops to buy as much loo roll as they can find — like savers rushing to the bank when they fear their bank will run out of money. The banking run explanation does not, however, explain why people are buying loo roll in such volumes.
  • Herding can be a type of heuristic: a decision-making short-cut that saves us time and cognitive effort. When other people's choices might be a useful source of information, we use a herding heuristic and follow others because we believe that they know more than we do…When we see a long queue, outside a restaurant, for example, we may join that queue because we conclude that everyone else queuing knows how good the restaurant's food is.

What’s your theory? We have a lot of learned people in our community (none of whom seem to be reading this blog, but we know you’re out there), and we’d love to share your thoughts on this phenomenon. Send us a note.

If you have additional ideas, advice, suggestions, music, or funny bits that you would like to share with your colleagues, send it all to or and we will post it to the blog.