The Hoarding Mentality

5 min read

Hoarding has been in the news recently because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Shelves in supermarkets across the world have been wiped clean as people have been buying more than they need. But what is it and why are we hoarding?

The Cambridge online dictionary defines hoarding as:
the act of collecting large amounts of something and keeping it for yourself, often in a secret place”.

In normal times, we tend to buy and hoard things when there are discounts. We want to take advantage of the offers presented to us and thus end up buying more than we actually need for the present, thinking that we will have a use for them later.

This is brought on by our survival instinct. Imagine the time when humans needed to gather food and store it for tough times like cold winters or famines. By hoarding food, we feel safe and secure knowing that we have all our essentials for an uncertain future.

And it is the same for the hoarding that takes place during the current pandemic situation. People are spurred on by anxiety and stress. The closure of borders gives rise to worries that food supplies or other essentials cannot be shipped into our country. This worry is further magnified with the knowledge that land-scarce Singapore is still currently reliant on imports for most of our food supply. According to Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist in an interview with Discover Magazine, people experience ‘anticipatory anxiety’ and give in to these fears, because on one hand, as we want to be safe rather than sorry, but we get them just in case. This results in us seeing the long queues and large crowds at supermarkets of people hoarding foods and other essentials.

Not all hoarding is brought by anticipatory anxiety though.

A curious sight of hoarding during the pandemic is people hoarding toilet paper. We can’t eat toilet paper as food, toilet paper can be replaced with a bidet, and toilet paper is definitely not a disinfectant we can use in our fight against COVID-19. So why do people hoard this item?

Like how humans have hoarded food in the past to feel safe and secure, hoarding toilet paper gives people a sense of security. Taylor, who has written a book, The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease, said that people see toilet paper as “a symbol of safety” and preparedness. He explains that the fear of disgust and getting infected are tightly linked together, and toilet paper is viewed as the best item for getting rid of disgusting matter. Stocking on toilet paper also helps us feel more prepared to face the pandemic.

Also, ever heard of the phrase “monkey see, monkey do”? Sometimes, we do things just because everyone else does it. We start stocking up on supplies like toilet paper because our ‘herd instinct’ kicks in. We tend to want to follow what others are doing; to snap up items we think seem important, but in reality, may not even be something we need.

Taylor observed in another interview with BBC that the news magnifying the panic buying and scarcity of toilet paper led people to feel an urgent need to stock up too. He likened it to being on the Titanic. “If everyone else on the Titanic is running for the lifeboats, you’re going to run too, regardless if the ship’s sinking or not,” he says. Once we get the items we deem are important to us, we heave a huge sigh of relief, as the feeling that we are in control again eases our mind.

A second definition by Psychology Today states that hoarding is “a mental condition that makes someone want to keep a large number of things that are not needed or have no value”. Hoarding can become a disorder.

Reading this made me worried at first, because I tend to buy things that I do not really need just because they are cute. A lot of these items are unnecessary and take up space.

However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a guidebook used by mental health professionals, states that one of the symptoms of the hoarding disorder include difficulties in parting with one’s possessions whether there is value in them or not, due to the distress in letting go of the items. Such difficulty then leads to the hoards taking over living spaces in homes and leaving very little or almost no space to move around. I know I have no problems in parting with some of my cute possessions, so my worries are unfounded.

Thankfully too, the anxiety we have during the pandemic is usually short-lived, and there is no need to go out and stockpile unnecessarily. National Development Minister Lawrence Wong assured that “the government had been planning for potential disruption of supplies… over many years through stockpiling, local production and diversification of our overseas sources” and that the “flow of goods and cargo including food supplies are largely continuing”.

I myself have been ordering groceries online and have been to the supermarket nearby my home a couple of times and have always been able to get my essential groceries and as well as seen shelves fully stocked with food, and even that of toilet paper. News reports of New Zealand sending essential supplies of food to Singapore can also quell the fear of dwindling supplies of food due to border closures.

And, despite our initial fears, we have seen how ultimately, our care for one another and society, are what matters most at the end of the day, with stories of altruistic behavior and donation of our solidarity money to those who may need it more than us alleviating and overriding our anxiety and fears. As such that is how I feel that hoarding will remain in this time of crisis – one that has no cause for unnecessary worry or anxiety, as it remains just a mentality, a temporary behavior that is short-lived and can be overcome.

Written by Marie Therese Anthony
Illustrated by Lee Ai Cing