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Hank George Proposes Toilet Paper Hoarder Underwriting Screen

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Life and health insurers should consider gathering data on insurance applicants who stockpiled toilet paper in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hank George, a longtime National Underwriter Life & Health underwriting columnist, has made that suggestion in a new commentary.

He recommended (with his tongue firmly in cheek) that insurers ask whether applicants have accumulated 60 or more rolls of toilet paper by ordinary purchase, or 60 or more rolls “by whatever means necessary.”

Resources

  • A copy of the Hank George commentary is available, behind a registration wall, here.
  • A copy of the toilet paper stockpiling research paper is available here.
  • A Hank George article about the insurability of regular marijuana users is available here.

George proposed that the list of answer options could also include “None: I never use the stuff” and “Other.”

George, who emailed after press time to underscore the point that he was joking, drafted the toilet paper aggregation experience question in response to a serious research paper written by Lisa Garbe, Richard Rau and Theo Toppe, “Influence of Perceived Threat of COVID-19 and HEXACO Personality Traits on Toilet Paper Stockpiling.”

Research Methods

Garbe, who is a political science specialist at the University of St. Gallen in St. Gallen, Switzerland, and her colleagues, who are affiliated with universities in Germany, based their paper on results from an online survey that received responses from 996 consumers in 22 countries.

The researchers broke participants down into toilet paper accumulation categories by asking whether they had no rolls; 1 to 4 rolls; 5 to 8 rolls; 9 to 12 rolls; 13 to 16 rolls; 17 to 20 rolls; or 21 or more rolls.

The researchers tried to adjust toilet paper stockpiling data for factors such as a participant’s age, household size, and quarantine or isolation expectations.

Older participants who are not normally hoarders might have accumulated more rolls of toilet paper because they expected to be locked in their homes longer, the searchers wrote in their paper, which was published in June.

The researchers noted that national toilet paper packaging characteristics also affected the numbers.

“Americans stockpiled more toilet paper in their household and went toilet paper shopping less frequently as compared to Europeans,” the researchers wrote. “This could be attributed to the circumstance that, on average, toilet paper rolls come in bigger packages in the US (e.g., up to 36 rolls per package) than in most European countries (e.g., between 8 to 16 rolls).”

Results

The researchers found that survey participants who took the COVID-19 threat more seriously were more likely to stockpile toilet paper.

Participants who are more emotional than others were also more likely to stockpile toilet paper.

Being especially conscientious was a third factor that led to increased stockpiling.

“All these effects held across North American and European countries and were robust across different indicators of toilet paper stockpiling (i.e., shopping frequency, shopping intensity, and stocked toilet rolls),” the researchers wrote.

The researchers said they believe their results have implications for policymakers who are involved with managing the response to a pandemic, and with trying to maximize helpful preparation efforts

“While it is important to communicate the severity of a pandemic and appeal to people’s compliance to necessary measures such as social distancing, communicators should be careful not to provoke panic that can eventually result in dysfunctional behavior such as stockpiling,” the researchers wrote. “This is also in line with the finding that fear can potentially be useful if people ‘feel capable of dealing with the threat.’ If fear is driven by strong emotions, however, people may ignore factual information and engage in irrational behavior.”

The Underwriter’s Reaction

George did not speculate about whether increased toilet paper stockpiling could correlate with anxiety or depression, or with private knowledge about digestive tract symptoms that could be early signs of COVID-19.

George did express his personal view that “near hysterical sequestration” of toilet paper is infuriating and should be ferreted out.

Clarification: Hank George thinks the idea of a toilet paper hoarding screen is funny. He is not seriously proposing that life insurers try implementing that.

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