The Pandemic Brain: Where Have All The Toilet Rolls Gone?

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

The Pandemic Brain is a new miniseries of articles by Dean Burnett on the neuroscientific and mental health consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic. Ideally it will be a short-lived series, but it almost certainly won’t be.

White gold!

Why are so many people buying so much toilet roll? To the extent where supermarkets can’t keep it on the shelves.

Soap and hand sanitiser help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Dry pasta is a foodstuff that lasts a long time at room temperature. It makes sense that people would buy those.

But there’s been no government or retails any warnings about coming shortages in terms of supply and distribution of toilet roll. And coronavirus isn’t associated with symptoms that… would require a marked increase in the amount of toilet roll used.

So, why are so many people so desperately buying toilet roll, when there’s no obvious need to do so?


Is your need for toilet roll enough to overcome the fact that it’s hanging the wrong way? It’s a modern dilemma.

People do genuinely need toilet roll

Firstly, it’s not like people don’t need toilet roll. We British prefer not to talk or think about what goes on in the bathroom, but we’re still biological organisms that excrete waste. Which means we need toilet roll, constantly.

And if you’re going to be stuck at home for an indefinite period, obviously you’re going to need more of ‘the essentials’ than usual. Like toilet roll.

This is only a part explanation though. Sure, we need toilet roll, why are people buying so much of it? And why specifically toilet roll? Many other things are essential too. If people suspected the water supply was going to suffer, the shops would be picked clean of bottled water too.

Just to confirm, NOBODY IS GOING TO BE CUT OFF FROM WATER! I speak as a Welshman who just had half his country flooded three times in a month. We’re fine for water.

Clearly, something else is at work concerning toilet roll.

Don’t know if you’ve heard, but it’s important to wash your hands.

We’re all suddenly very hygiene conscious.

People are buying hand soap and sanitiser because we’re being told every 15 minutes that washing our hands is very important.

Much has been made of ‘nudge theory’ lately, particularly in the context of the UK’s initial handling of the Coronavirus.

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It’s the practice whereby the behaviour and decision making of large groups of people can be ‘nudged’ in a desired direction via subtle clues and reinforcements. Like, putting fruit and veg at the entrance of a supermarket is technically a nudge. You don’t have to by fruit and veg, but it’s visually pleasing and makes you think of health and vitamins etc. So, people are more likely to buy it.

The human brain is very good at spotting patterns and making connections, so nudge theory can be effective. But hardly anything we experience or know about doesn’t come embedded within a wider context, so our brains are regularly making intuitive and heuristic leaps.

So, we’re being bombarded with messages that we must wash our hands, so we need soap. Where is soap usually kept? In the bathroom. Where do we wash our hands most often? In the bathroom. Why do we most typically wash our hands, in non-plague times? Because we’ve just been to the toilet.

When you think about it, there’s a clear link between buying soap, washing hands, and the need for toilet roll. That many people would subconsciously make this connection perhaps isn’t surprising. It may not explain the whole panic buying thing, but it may explain why toilet roll is suddenly such a priority for many.

It’ll all come in handy one day

Uncertainty, stress, and hoarding

As outlined in the previous article in this series, the uncertainty surrounding much of the coronavirus situation is a big cause of stress for many. And there is so much uncertainty to be found. How long will we be made to socially isolate? When can children go back to school? When can we go back to work? Who’s going to get it? All this and more, causes much stress.

Uncertainty also means people don’t know how much they’ll need when buying essentials. Should you buy enough for a month? Two months? Six? Who knows!

People experiencing fear or anxiety also instinctively become more risk averse in their decisions. So, prepping for a worst-case scenario, a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach, is to be expected.

Also, acquiring ‘stuff’ reduces feelings of sadness and stress to an extent. Retail therapy is a real thing. It imparts a sense of control, of autonomy, however fleeting, and the human brain likes that. So, shopping for large quantities of things, particularly essentials that are at the forefront of your mind, is a predictable outcome of the anxiety-inducing scenario like that which coronavirus has plunged us into.

There’s also evidence that links a low tolerance of distress and a sensitivity to anxiety to hoarding behaviour. And unlike toilet roll, anxiety and distress are available in abundance right now.

What separates us from the other primates? Well, among other things, our use of toilet roll.

Monkey see, monkey do

Humans are an incredibly social species. It’s one of the main theories as to why we evolved such big brains in the first place. As a result, our brains are very sensitive and impressionable to what others around us are doing.  Particularly in large, emotionally-charged groups. If enough people around us are behaving in certain consistent emotional ways, it can lead to things like mob mentality, or mass hysteria, which can have some very grim outcomes.

Riots occur because of such processes. The Salem Witch trials. The Hollinwell incident, where hundreds of people were overcome by fainting and nausea, because everyone around them expected it to happen. We take so many of our cues and understanding from those around us, and use them to work out the appropriate response and behaviour. Even if it contradicts official instructions or hard data. Because of how our brains work, people are always more convincing that PowerPoint.

This seems to be particularly true during stressful, panic situations. Our brains respond more readily to fearful crowds than to happy, cheerful ones.

Maybe it was only a few people who panic-bought toilet paper. But for such a social species as ours, that’s all it takes. The panicked notion to bulk buy certain essentials could easily have spread among people as fast as the virus itself.

Faster, if anything, because we have social media now. We don’t have to rely on word of mouth anymore. Panic can be spread between dozens of people across the country at the touch of a button.

And those who are posting pics of empty shelves to shame panic shoppers or just to vent about the foolishness of others probably aren’t helping. Reinforcement theory suggests that those who are already worried about shortages just see the empty shelves, conclude that stocks are running out, and are even more motivated to panic buy

This isn’t to judge or condemn anyone for buying excess toilet roll. It may not be sensible, but there’s a lot going on right now that isn’t sensible. Like, I’m a qualified neuroscientist, and I just spent an afternoon writing about toilet roll. Where’s the sense in that?

Dean Burnett has a wide selection of things to offer the socially isolated, from his podcasts Smart Welsh People and Brain Yapping, to his various books, all available online in some form.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, author and stand up comedian. He is the author of the international best -sellers The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for  the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education. He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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