If we all remember one thing from the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020, it will be the Great TP Crisis that gripped the entire planet. Of all things we could be doing to hunker down, this is easily the least rational, but also the most meme-worthy. What is wrong with us?
There are so many psychological phenomena that come into play in a crisis like a pandemic, you could write a book on them, but we're going to frame the TP Crisis using a contrived situation often used to research decision-making in social contexts called the "prisoner's dilemma." In this situation, two people are separated and given the following scenario:
You are a member of a gang. The prosecutors have charged you with a serious offense, but only have enough evidence to convict you of a lesser one. You have been offered a deal wherein you can testify that the other committed the more serious offense. Alternatively, you can remain silent. The possible outcomes are:
1. If you and the other member betray each other, both of you will serve 2 years in prison.
2. If one of you rats out the other, that one will be set free, and the other will serve 3 years in prison.
3. If neither of you rat out the other, both of you will serve 1 year in prison.
What do you do?
The "right" answer, from a self-preservation perspective, is to rat your partner out. Sure, you might have to do 2 years in prison, but it avoids the worst possible scenario. To put this in toilet paper terms: Let's say you normally buy enough TP to last a month, but because this is an emergency, you want to make sure you have enough for several months. Regardless of how everyone else behaves, it's in your personal best interest to hoard it. If other people are panic buying, there will be less for you, and if other people are not panic buying, then more TP for you!
When placed in an experimental setting and given one chance to play this game, most people will make a rational choice and buy too much TP. In these situations, participants are told they don't know the other person, and that person will never be able to retaliate. However, when people are asked to play out this scenario over multiple instances with feedback about how the other person responded, cooperative behavior begins to emerge. This paradigm, the "iterative prisoner's dilemma," has been used to study cooperative and altruistic behavior. In these cases, the best case scenario is usually a "tit for tat" strategy in which case you do whatever the other player does on the previous round. However, that depends upon what the other person does. Winning the long game requires paying attention to their strategy and predicting their next move, which is not something any of us have the capacity to do in a toilet paper crisis scenario.
What's the takeaway here? Hoarding TP is not in everyone else's best interest, but it certainly is in yours at least in the short term from a game theory perspective. I'm not endorsing hoarding anything, but of all the seemingly irrational things you could do during these unprecedented times, if you find yourself with the urge to panic buy TP, at least you know you're not totally nuts for doing it.
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