What We Can Learn From Last Week’s Toilet Paper Panic

There is a type of rock formation Native Americans once called a “buffalo jump.” After luring a herd of bison to its peak, hunters would single out a few in front and frighten them towards the edge. Once the animals began running, the ones behind would mindlessly follow; hunters could sit back and watch as the entire herd literally ran off a cliff.[1]

Oh look, a metaphor.

Last week, many of us sat back and watched with a mix of horror and awe as our fellow Americans launched into a paper-product hoarding battle the likes of which we’ve never seen: empty shelf after empty shelf, videos of old folks violently defending their stash, the unfortunates desperately begging for someone to give them just one roll.

There is something oddly primal about it. Our first instinct during a crisis is to gather resources; we need to eat, so we stock up on food. We need to drink, so we stock up on water. We need to use the bathroom, so we stock up on toilet paper.

And yet… toilet paper is not actually a survival necessity. We do not, in fact, need a piece of disposable paper to wipe ourselves. Toilet paper wasn’t even commercially marketed until the mid 1800’s.[2] Before then, we used anything that worked. Including our hands. (Ever wonder why we shake with our right hand? The other was for… yup.)

But it’s 2020. We have sinks.

In other words, toilet paper is not the deciding factor in whether we leave the bathroom clean. We can take a deep breath and do what our ancestors did: wipe with our hand. And then, since it’s 2020, wash it.

So, what’s with the panic buying?

In 1957, Solomon Asch, a psychologist, designed what is now considered a classical study.[3] Placing an unknowing person amongst a group of actors, Asch presented the members of the room with a single line. He then presented three alternative lines and asked them to identify which of three matched the length of the original. Before the experiment, the actors were told to agree upon an incorrect answer. Thus, the unknowing person had to decide: (a) choose correctly or (b) choose incorrectly but agree with the group. 2 out of 3 times the unknowing person agreed with the group. The conclusion? Individuals often choose majority over rationality. In other words, even in an individualistic society, something in us still reaches for the herd.

From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. There is strength in numbers, in being a member of a pack. The issue arises when we begin to ignore rational thoughts and get swept up in societal waves of emotion, causing us to act in ways we would normally consider crazy–in this case, we observe others panic buying, our inner bison screams, “I must not be left behind!” and we run as fast as we can for toilet paper, elbowing anyone in our way.

But when used correctly, being in the herd can be a good thing. Strength in numbers is not only physical, but emotional; together we create support and unity, not to mention help fight feelings of isolation and depression (which, with current quarantining, may spread just as rapidly as the virus). Have you seen videos of people serenading one another from balconies? Photos of restaurants using their perishable food to serve free meals for those in need? Many manufacturing companies are stopping normal production to make much-needed medical supplies; those are the herds to follow.

At our most logical, we know we don’t need toilet paper to survive the next several weeks. But we may need each other. Let’s use last week’s toilet paper rampage as an opportunity to note the behavior we don’t want to model and instead take a deep breath, reset, and focus on how we can use this herd the right way.

Psychotherapist in Denver, Colorado. www.brittmahrer.com

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