The COVID-19 surge in Australia, and subsequent city lock downs are apparently causing a run on loo paper. Scientists in four cities examined similar pandemic-related hoarding a year ago. They wanted to know whether hoarding, or prosocial behaviour would help them pull through better despite the isolation.
Their approach is interesting, because classic hoarders also tend to isolate themselves from others. And one theory holds this helps them cope better with depression, or loss of a loved one. Culture also influences whether prosocial, or self-interested responses are more likely in the presence of a perceived threat. And this can be relevant when clearing a hoarded house for probate.
The Pandemic Stressors Linked to COVID-19
Pandemic stress has two drivers. In the first instance we fear infection, while in the second we imagine things we depend on, like loo paper becoming scarce. In the researchers’ model, there are two broad responses to those threats:
1… We could involve ourselves in heroic and prosocial acts (‘share the loo paper’)
2… We could accentuate self-interested behaviour (‘keep the paper for ourselves’)
The researchers hoped to uncover the factors influencing these alternatives. They were also curious to know whether moral identity, being the motivation to do ‘the right thing’, increased the likelihood of sharing supplies and information.
The Four Factors Driving Hoarding and Prosocial Behaviour
The researchers sought to understand their topic across four broad themes. These were:
1… Coping with COVID-19: prosociality versus hoarding
2… Moral identity, prosociality, and hoarding
3… Effects of prosociality and hoarding on psychological well-being
4… The role of culture in these behavioural responses
1.. Coping with COVID-19: Prosociality and hoarding
We experience stress when demands threaten to, or exceed our resources. Appraisal leads us to the most appropriate countermeasure. Both hoarding and prosocial behaviours were observed during World War II, for example.
The more a community perceives a pandemic as a threat to its ability to cope, the more likely they are to ensure adequate supplies to survive a lockdown. Individuals have two extreme options, or alternatively a blend of stockpiling and sharing supplies with those in need.
2… Moral identity, hoarding and prosocial behaviour
However, moral identity, or the extent our personal compass inclines us to ‘do the right thing’ also plays a role. Are we more disposed to care for our fellows, or help ourselves in the face of a perceived shortage of resources?
Identification with ‘good’ factors such as benevolence, justice, obligation, and integrity increase the likelihood of a prosocial response. But if we have a more self-seeking orientation, then we may prefer to hoard resources for our own consumption.
3… Effects of prosociality and hoarding on mental well-being
Researchers Dwight Tse, Vienne Lau, Ying-yi Hong, Michelle Bligh, and Maria Kakarika wondered to what extent choosing hoarding, or prosocial behaviour would enhance our sense of well being.
They thought ‘maladaptive hoarding’ could deprive the community, and ‘ultimately relate to poorer well being’. Whereas sharing ‘addresses the shortage problem at both personal and community levels,’ they believed and is likely to enhance psychological well being’.
4… The role of culture in behavioural responses
The team noted how some nations quickly export medical supplies to those in need during the pandemic, while others stockpile drugs and essential items for their own use. Societies have also responded differently to wearing face masks for example.
Individualistic cultures could have a different view on prosocial versus hoarding behaviour, compared to collectivistic ones they thought. This difference could be especially strong where there was potential conflict between personal well being and welfare of others.
What the Scientists Learned When They Dug Around
The researchers turned their attention to the real world outside them to test those four theories. They began by recruiting 251 participants in the United Kingdom, 268 in the United States, 197 in Germany and 200 in Hong Kong.
After the volunteers completed an online survey the following factors became evident:
1… Perceiving a threat related positively to both prosocial and hoarding acts.
2… However, benevolent moral identity only associated with prosocial acts.
Prosocial acts related to hoarding could most likely involve ‘giving the collection away’ to impoverished people. While antisocial hoarding might imply caring less about others, and accumulating items for self instead.
This finding suggests that appealing to ‘the greater good’ when asking a hoarder to de-clutter, would be less than effective, as is the case in our experience.
Therefore, it might be wiser to appeal to their ‘selfish instincts’, and work on health and safety deficiencies threatening their physical survival. One could also point out their home was deteriorating if they were the owner, and threatening their asset base when approaching a hoarders house clearance.