The new coronavirus is inspiring panic buying of a variety of household products such as toilet paper in cities across the U.S. and world. While it makes sense to me that masks and hand sanitizer would be in short supply because of the outbreak, why would people would be hoarding toilet paper – a product that is widely produced and doesn’t help protect from a respiratory virus like COVID-19?

Toilet paper hoarding in particular has a curious history and economy. In 1973, U.S. consumers cleared store shelves of the rolls for a month based on little more than rumors, fears and a joke. Venezuelans hoarded the commodity in 2013 as a result of a drop in production, leading the government to seize a toilet paper factory in an effort to ensure more supply. It failed to do the trick.

Australia has also suffered from panic buying of toilet paper despite plentiful domestic supply. A risk expert in the country explained it this way: “Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are ‘doing something’ when they feel at risk.”

This is an example of “zero risk bias,” in which people prefer to try to eliminate one type of possibly superficial risk entirely rather than do something that would reduce their total risk by a greater amount.

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