The Tragedy of the Commons, Toilet Paper, and You

Photo by Michael Jasmund on Unsplash

There’s an experiment that I stole from my thesis supervisor that I occasionally run with students as an activity in class. The idea behind the experiment is simple: I tell the students I have an extra 5% in bonus marks on an upcoming test, and that they can acquire a portion of this prize depending on the way they choose to play the game. The 5% is meant to represent a scarce natural resource, and their response is meant to simulate the use of that resource. I usually instruct students to think of it as if they’re all fishing from the same pond.

Each student can choose one of the two options:

  1. Exploit – take the maximum amount of the finite resource that they can.
  2. Sustainable use – split the resource evenly among the whole class/community.

If all the students chose the sustainable use option, they equally split the prize, and a second round commences in which students have an opportunity to repeat the experiment and earn even more bonus marks. The second round is meant to simulate the way that renewable natural resources, such as lumber, fish, etc. can be used basically indefinitely if responsibly managed.

If one or more students selfishly decide to maximize their take from the resource pool by choosing the exploit option, the total is split among only those students who selected exploit, and everyone who chose to responsibly use the resource misses out.

Without fail, every single time at least one student chooses to exploit the resource.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Of course this is the result I want as their instructor. It provides an opportunity to show students a little about greed and human nature. It also makes a great transition into discussion of the tragedy of the commons, and the way humans tend to exploit greedily, with less concern for the big picture. If we all take as many fish as we can get, eventually, there simply won’t be any fish left to reproduce and maintain the stock. We do not seem to mind the consequences of our actions being felt by others.

This might be starting to sound a little like the issue we’re having with toilet paper.

In response the COVID-19 pandemic, and in anticipation of potential for quarantines people are stocking up on necessities. And rightfully so! It would be awfully foolish to not be prepared in the event a state of emergency closes down businesses.

That said, the obsession with buying (literally) hundreds, and hundreds of rolls of toilet paper is absolutely insane. There should be more than enough toilet paper in this city to go around, even if households are in quarantine for a period of a month.

But there isn’t. As a result of the perception, or fear, of scarcity stores are sold out citywide. We have manufactured the very scarcity we feared. Worse, it’s transformed into a vicious cycle. With media outlets reporting about the widespread shortages, you can bet the next time a rational consumer (i.e who initially purchased a reasonable amount of toilet paper) sees toilet paper available, they’re going to stock up, in response to the actual scarcity we now face. We’ve transformed the situation to one where you either over do it, or miss out all together.

The worst part of all this, is those with limited transportation and accessibility (think elderly people) are the ones who are missing the opportunity to get the essential product, compounding the fact that they are already the population most vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19.

A site familiar all over North America after panicked consumers bought out supplies of toilet paper. Photo by D.D.Teoli Jr on WikiCommons

And there really shouldn’t be any shortage. In a piece in the Globe and Mail, the CEO of Kruger products (makers of Cashmere and Purex toilet paper) is quoted as saying that they are manufacturing toilet paper at maximum capacity, without any plans to change the price of the products despite the increased demand. Basically, the supply chain of toilet paper from manufacturer to consumer should be uninterrupted in the coming days and weeks. There will be plenty of toilet paper once they have caught up with the blip of overbuying, and those with years worth of toilet paper to store will feel a little bit foolish that they prevented their fellow residents from having a basic necessity.

Photo by Lazar Gugleta on Unsplash

A useful mental model for the way that the manufactured scarcity of toilet paper becomes a vicious cycle is the choice faced in the prisoners dilemma.

In the prisoners dilemma, you and another suspect are brought in for questioning about a crime you’ve committed. You are separated, and are therefore unable to know what your accomplice is saying to the authorities. Both of you are given the option of giving up the other in exchange for a lighter sentence. Neither of you know that without a confession, they likely will be unable to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The model below depicts the four possible outcomes of this situation.

As you can see, the ideal scenario for both would be not giving up the other, as united they stand the best chance of achieving reasonable doubt and going free. The worst possible outcome for one of the suspects is holding their tongue, only to have their accomplice rat them out forcing them to face the full penalty of their crime. Thus creates a scenario where it is logical to sell out your accomplice and receive a fairly good outcome for yourself in order to prevent yourself from becoming “the sucker”.

To translate this model for the current “Toilet Paper Dilemma”, I pit two hypothetical shoppers against each other. This is obviously a major simplification of reality, but it’s still a helpful model to understand the choice consumers are faced with.

So when you walk into the store and by some miracle you’re actually faced with a supply of toilet paper, you also face a choice. You could be selfish, act as an individual and buy the store out of their supply in an attempt to prevent the worst possible outcome for yourself, or you can act in a way that ensures everyone gets what they need.

So please, buy an appropriate amount of toilet paper, even if you’re worried. It’s understandable that people act more selfishly in times where they feel in danger, but consider the nature of the threat facing us. Making sure you don’t get the infection is not enough, this is a threat that faces everything from our supply chains, to our stock markets, to our education, to our entertainment, and the only way to make sure you are safe is to reduce the rate of transmission through our world. Hoarding soap for example, might ensure your hands are clean, but if nobody else’s are, I don’t like your chances. The number of others that are vulnerable to contracting the disease directly impacts your own probability of contracting COVID-19.

This is all to say that our fates are deeply entangled.

If we can’t learn to be reasonable and unselfish about something like toilet paper, what chance do we possibly stand at beating this threat to our way of life?

Oh, and anyone stealing face masks from health care professionals… get your act together. A pandemic is no excuse to behave like a Neanderthal.


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