Empty shelves in the toilet paper aisle of an Atlantic Superstore supermarket of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on 12 March 20
Empty shelves in the toilet paper aisle of an Atlantic Superstore supermarket of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on 12 March 2020. Photo: Wikimedia

The Psychology Behind Panic Stockpiling

As the COVID-19 outbreak spurs mass buying, people are flocking stores for toilet paper, but why?

Orge Castellano
5 min readMar 17, 2020

Last Saturday afternoon, Lucia, a 27-year-old marketing consultant, decided to head to her nearest shop in Madrid, Spain, to pick up some routine food supplies. What started as a quick errand turned into a four-hour nightmare, wandering several stores, seeing people fighting over toilet paper and canned tomatoes and navigating checkout lanes filled with hundreds of shoppers amid a state of emergency declaration over the COVID-19 pandemic.

This apocalyptic scene of people desperately panic buying toilet paper has become one of the most repeated images seeping through social media. From Wuhan and Hong Kong to Milan and California shoppers have been clearing grocery store shelves in response to coronavirus outbreak. This psychological action is often referred to as “panic buying.”

As the outbreak of the virus has escalated, many have left their homes in search for supplies and basic necessities to deal with the possibility of the coronavirus keeping them in confinement for weeks or even months to come. First were surgical masks, then hand sanitizers and soon coronavirus panic buyers starting to snatch up one commodity in particular: toilet paper. Comparable panic purchasing also precedes snowstorms and typhoons. However, the widespread existence of the coronavirus outbreak— together with exposure to massive amounts of information encouraged by social media — means that fear today spreads in forms never seen in past epidemics, such as the 2003 SARS outbreak triggered by a similar virus.

While the CDC and the WHO have recommended within their preventive measures, the use of antibacterial gel, disinfectant products along with frequent hand washing. Citizens across the globe have chosen to over-purchase toilet paper, a product that does not offer any special protection whatsoever against the virus, leaving a lot of us shocked by their peculiar behaviour. Nevertheless, what are the motives behind panic buying? Moreover, why are so many people stockpiling toilet paper as if it was a staple of impending emergencies?

Experts in consumer psychology argue that such irrational behaviour is a clear example of…



Orge Castellano

Journalist and multilingual researcher at your service. More stories on https://orgecastellano.com