COVID Contemplations - Toilet Paper - FOMO Bandwagon (snippet)
Updated: Jul 16
(a sneak peak at my upcoming book)
Topic introduction: Social psychology
Social psychology is the study of how a person is influenced by other people and undergoes an internal change (thoughts, feelings) or external change (actions, behavior). Influences can include all of the following and are not limited to these examples:
- Talking with someone else in the same room.
- Playing a game with someone via the internet.
- Seeing someone’s social media picture or video post online.
- Imagining what your co-workers say about you when you’re not around.
- Hearing on the news how many people are buying a lot of toilet paper.
It is vital to realize that your feelings, thoughts, and behavior are inescapably affected by how you perceive others’ feelings, thoughts, and behavior.
Article: “Is COVID-19 Coronavirus Leading to Toilet Paper Shortages? Here is the Situation”
By Bruce Y. Lee
There is a rush to go grocery shopping before forecasted dangers such as snowstorms and hurricanes. While it is easy to follow the reasoning of why people buy more filtered masks and hand sanitizers during the COVID pandemic, it is more difficult to explain why milk, eggs, and toilet paper have become the stable popular items over the years.
This article describes how local stores’ stock of toilet paper is being depleted during the current COVID pandemic by concerned customers in various countries despite there being no warnings from the government about any shortage.1 The author sprinkles tweets and videos from international news throughout and makes sure to wipe up with plenty of puns.
Analysis: Why we get on the FOMO bandwagon
FOMO is an acronym for “fear of missing out” and describes people’s tendency to impulsively want to be involved and not be left out. This may be accompanied by feelings of regret and self-deprecation at not being able to participate. The term is usually used in the context of social media but illustrates a more pervasive aspect of human social psychology. Here are some examples:
- You find out that many of your acquaintances have downloaded and are enjoying the new social media smart-phone app Woolanka (Don’t worry that you’re missing out - I made this name up!) and you quickly go to download this app.
- You’re at the gas station, and the customers there are all buying lottery tickets because the news has reported that the prize money is really high, so you end up buying a ticket… or ten.
- Someone you follow on social media but do not know personally uploads a picture of themselves enjoying themselves on a trip to the Maldives, and you feel jealous that you’re not having the same experience.
FOMO is accentuated by a perceived scarcity. It is easier to have FOMO when a particular item or experience is limited. Businesses utilize this tendency to help sell their products:
“Limited time offer!”
“First press release with exclusive bonus!”
“Only ten seats available!”
“Hurry while supplies last!”
Let’s say there is a local pizzeria that you like to eat at and go to at least once a week. You happen to see a video online of someone describing their experience of eating their new type of pizza that they will only sell to the first 100 customers who ask for it. It would not be strange for you to have FOMO in this situation because of your pre-existing interest and the current apparent scarcity.
Now, let’s say that you are walking by a local bookstore that has not yet opened for the day, and you see a line of people waiting to go inside. You learn there that there is going to be a special event where a New York Times best-selling author will be there to talk about their new book and sign a copy for the first 100 people who buy a copy from the bookstore. Now, you have never heard about this author before, but when you find out that there are currently ninety-nine people in line and that most of them have also not heard of this author, you will probably get an urge to take the 100th spot. In this example you take action because of FOMO and perceived scarcity, even though you did not previously have a vested interest because of the bandwagon effect. The bandwagon effect is a cognitive bias in which people decide to follow the fads and trends (i.e., hop on the bandwagon) because of the increasing number of people who are already involved or participating, even if it is not compatible with their beliefs. (See the Spring Break chapter for a deeper discussion of cognitive biases.)
Before moving on with the reasons for the buying of excessive amounts of toilet paper, we need to consider the value of toilet paper. Toilet paper is used to clean up specific body parts after defecation and urination. Sure, you can use toilet paper to clean up other things, but really towels of the paper and non-paper variety work better for those tasks. Also, if you live somewhere with a working toilet, you probably also have access to a working shower and could always just clean up using water in the shower. There are many people who clean up by rinsing with clean water. You do not have to start using clay, stones, and sponges on sticks such as people used to do long, long ago. The point I am trying to make is that toilet paper is a luxury or convenience and not really a necessity. People who perceive toilet paper to be a necessity have different reasons for believing so, but to persist in this belief by disregarding contrary perspectives is yet another type of cognitive bias (anchoring effect).
So, there are three reasons that you may go to buy more toilet paper than usual even though toilet paper is not a necessity for living, and the toilet paper shortage in local stores is caused by everyone buying too much of it instead of an actual national shortage:
You anticipate the scarcity of toilet paper in the future because you suspect everyone will be buying it, so you go buy a lot of toilet paper in case the stores run out of toilet paper.
You see or hear about people stocking up on toilet paper and get on the bandwagon with FOMO.
You have an unconscious motivation to buy toilet paper that is not explained by FOMO, perceived scarcity, or the bandwagon effect. (I have some thoughts about this, but it is outside of the scope of this chapter. I have read the suggestion that it is a way for people to exert control in times of uncertainty, but this is a superficial answer that does not satisfy me.)
In other words, the excessive buying of toilet paper during the COVID pandemic is an example of the bandwagon effect and FOMO accentuated by scarcity. These aspects of ourselves derail us from making better decisions. If we keep living life being led by everyone else and the FOMO bandwagon, we are essentially leaving ourselves out of our own decision-making process.
Question / exercises - Getting off the FOMO bandwagon every now and then
Knowing that we have a tendency to get on the FOMO bandwagon is a great chance to practice self-awareness. It’s easy to just do what everyone else is doing, but this comes with a cost to ourselves - it is almost like we are losing ourselves and our individuality. Answering the following questions will help you become more aware of yourself and know when you are getting on the FOMO bandwagon.
What are five instances in which you have experienced FOMO in the past and did something because of it?
Describe at least one time in which you personally got on the “bandwagon” and went along with a fad or trend even though you were never really interested in it.
This one is harder: What are five things that make you feel FOMO in the present? Describe why you feel the FOMO for each example.
What is the worst that can happen if you do not get on the bandwagon?
1. Lee, B.Y. “Is COVID-19 coronavirus leading to toilet paper shortages? Here is the situation.”www.Forbes.com. 6 Mar 2020.