When the full extent of the spread of the novel coronavirus first became known, some of the most ubiquitous memes on social media had to do with the hoarding of toilet paper. Being a nation that’s long thrived on gallows humor, people were finding all manner of ways to crack jokes about what was part of a larger and literally deadly subject of discussion. But the hoarding was real. Pictures of empty shelves at grocery stores flooded Twitter and Facebook and at least in some places, they’re still showing up today.

Was the hoarding unavoidable? Did it really accomplish anything for the hoarders? And why is it that we always seem to see these reactions when a moment of crisis approaches? Marc Fisher offers some thoughts on the subject at the Washington Post, and he sees this trend as something that speaks to man’s natural reaction to external threats. But more to the point, why specifically are people hoarding toilet paper every bit as much as they do break and milk before a hurricane?

The leading theories are:

1. We’re buying too much toilet paper because we’re panicked there won’t be any when we need it.

2. We’re actually using way more than usual at home because most people are sheltering in place rather than using the facilities while at work, school, restaurants or other public places.

“The third theory is that both of those are right,” said Doug Baker, vice president at the Food Industry Association, which represents retailers, distributors and producers — the whole chain of businesses from the factory to you.

Admittedly, Fisher is looking at this question in a rather mechanical fashion rather than a philosophical one or some deeper aspect of the human psyche. Simply put, there are only so many manufacturers of TP currently in operation. They can ramp up production to meet a surge in demand for a little while (and they have), but not for a sustained period. The supply chain needs time to adjust to the greater demand and if it’s not expected to last very long, they won’t bother.

Also, with almost everyone staying home, fewer people are using the TP at their offices, schools or other public facilities. The industry is kind of specialized in this regard. Some companies make smaller packages of rolls of TP that are far softer and more popular for home use. Other companies make the less comfortable bulk TP you find in public restrooms. So most of the demand pressure is on the subset of companies producing the better quality TP most of you use at home.

What’s not being addressed by Fisher is the deeper issue of why so many of us are hoarding TP in the first place. Or hoarding anything for that matter. There are a certain number of people who fall into a clinical class of psychiatric issues known as Hoarding Disorder. But that’s not what we’re dealing with during the pandemic.

This is situational hoarding. People who would otherwise never clutter their shelves and closets with months worth of some set of essential products are doing so now. And that’s part of an evolutionary trigger that most of us possess. If the short-term future needs of you and/or your family look like they won’t be met, a natural response is to proactively secure the way to meet those needs. And as sad as it may be to admit, there is a natural inclination to do this even if it means ensuring your own needs at the expense of your neighbors.

I’m not sure who came up with the quote originally (though it’s been credited to Lenin), but it’s frequently been said that society is eternally only three, six or nine meals away from anarchy, depending who you ask. Desperate, hungry people will act in ways that they would never dream of during more normal times. Even the threat of missing those meals is enough to trigger a hoarding response in a significant percentage of the population when hurricanes, floods or other catastrophes are approaching. Perhaps we’ve undergone a type of social evolution to the point where we view toilet paper as being as essential to continued survival as food.

Does that make us bad people? In times of crisis, bad is in the eye of the beholder. But human nobility does appear to be conditional because the instincts for self-preservation and survival are generally powerful enough to allow our id to overcome our superego, at least temporarily.