Why we all rushed to buy toilet paper – a culture of dominoes

By Anna Jester

My late uncle was a police officer in Canada. One of his favourite tricks was for him and his partner to screech to a halt in a squad car in front of a crowd of people, hop out and look up into the sky pointing and talking to each other animatedly. They’d then drive away and quickly circle around the block and back past the crowd. There they would all be, looking into the sky, pointing for themselves (hey, crime is low in Canada, they had to stay busy).

As a species, we love to follow each other. It’s an instinct that’s there to teach us the ways of life, to keep us safe and make sure we all stay in sync. However, it’s also an overdone strength, and one that can be easily tricked. Let me give you a scenario. 

You are walking along the street and a man stops and says to you ‘hey, there’s an alien ship in the sky’. He points up, and you glance up yourself. Clear blue nothing. You walk on. Was there a ship? No.

But, ten more people stop you and tell you the same thing, and by the time you get home you are also telling people you walk past about the ‘alien ship’. 

And so it is with toilet paper. The story started in Hong Kong – there was a rumour that the island was running low, so people started panic buying. Then someone robbed a warehouse and stole a ton of the stuff, and the country went crazy. One of our good friends returned home from a holiday in Thailand with her case full of double-ply.

It’s a challenge we face in business cultures all the time. Rumour becomes fact and fact becomes a behaviour driver. Unpicking the truth takes far longer than the time the false information needed to spread across the organisation (halfway around the world, if I remember the phrase). Particularly when the falsehood is so much more exciting.

There’s a great (true) story that really shows how good we are at lining up behind a story. In the 1950s, in a small town in America – Bellingham – people started to notice small holes and pits appearing on the windshields of their cars. Everyone was baffled, and the reasons why got more and more fanciful – cosmic rays, H-bomb tests, sand fleas, aliens. And the problem spread – soon, all across America holes were appearing on cars, even ones parked on sales lots.

Such was the problem that the authorities commissioned a study to identify the cause. Dutiful research was undertaken and the reports published to an eager, worried populace. Nothing had caused the holes, other than the usual wear and tear of driving around and being parked on busy streets – only five percent of holes and pits were caused by ‘delinquents’ who had jumped on the bandwagon as the story took hold. Everyone had become caught up in the idea and the ‘truth’ of the rumour and never stopped to ask ‘what is true’.

So that’s why we’ve all bought tons of toilet paper. Not because we need it, or because it’s running out, but because everyone else is, so we should too. Too few people have stopped and asked ‘what is true?’.

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