Toilet paper memes have become all the rage during the coronavirus crisis. One popular meme shows a doctor informing her patient that his test came back positive for COVID19.
“You have coronavirus,” she tells him. “That can’t be correct. I have over 40 cases of Costco water and 200 rolls of toilet paper,” the man answers incredulously.
That meme is funny because it seems so silly, and yet people are seriously hoarding supplies.
“When the feeling of fear is very strong, it may override thoughts like why do I need to store toilet paper in large quantities during a viral crisis or stockpile bottled water when we can get water from the faucet?” says Dr. Eugenio Rothe, a psychiatrist at the FIU Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.
Rothe is not surprised at the mass dash to unnecessarily stock up on supplies. It has to do with the way our brain is wired. We have a primitive brain located in the limbic system and a rational brain located in the cerebral cortex.
“The feeling of fear is located in the limbic system, and when fear kicks in it sometimes overrides reason,” he says.
The coronavirus pandemic has touched on two of the most unpleasant feelings that a human being can experience: fear and uncertainty. Rothe explains that when there is uncertainty, the fear reaction becomes even more intense and can eventually lead to panic. Storing up on supplies becomes a defense mechanism. It provides us with a feeling of safety in the face of the unknown.
Then there’s the contagion effect. Behavioral contagion is a type of social influencing where people have a tendency to imitate others.
It’s “when you see a trend happening around you, and you begin to feel that you don’t want to be the one left out if you are not doing what the majority of the people are doing,” Rothe says.
Social media and 24/7 cable news channels can help spread this behavior. “The media has an enormous responsibility in situations like this because they can either calm the population or throw the population into a panic,” says Rothe. “Our leaders also need to be clear and keep people informed as to what is happening, what’s coming, and what are the safety measures that are being implemented.”
You can protect yourself from emotional contagion by finding the most reliable sources of information and staying informed so that you can make rational decisions that are not influenced by other people’s emotions.