VICTORIA -- As COVID-19 continues to spread around the globe, there’s a parallel phenomenon: toilet paper stockpiling.

If you’ve recently visited a Metro Vancouver shop and found empty shelves instead of toilet paper, you’ve probably felt the urge to find some, and quickly. That’s because of social norms that guide many of our actions.

"Essentially when everybody is buying something, then everybody else sees it’s gone, and they want to get it too," explained Sauder School of Business assistant professor David Hardisty. He specializes in behavioural science and marketing.

He said it’s similar to when we see people lined up for a restaurant and assume it must be good, and when we see an empty restaurant, we think it’s probably not great.

"Social norms are just one of the deepest psychological forces," he added.

An unverified video posted to Facebook shows what the user said is a Langley Costco and dozens of shoppers rushing to get their hands on the bathroom tissue. Similar scenes have played out across Asia, Australia and America.

"It kind of makes sense in that everybody’s looking to get control," he said. COVID-19’s spread is unpredictable.

While stockpiling isn’t new when faced with an uncertain event like a possible pandemic, Hardisty is surprised that one of the items being hoarded is toilet paper.

"You could use it for wiping surfaces, right? So maybe if it could be used because it's disposable and it's cheap. You think you should use paper towels but you know, toilet paper is cheaper than a lot of other stuff so maybe that's it."

But there’s difficulty in linking the toilet paper to the pandemic.

One rumour is that there may be an impending shortage of toilet paper because most of it comes from China. Why then would people then stockpile a product coming from the epicentre of the outbreak?

Plus, there’s a good chance your toilet paper comes from a Canadian manufacturer. Kruger, a Canadian company, employs 2,500 employees in papermaking and converting plants. It makes products like Purex and Cashmere.

Even more confusing is that the novel coronavirus is a respiratory illness and symptoms include trouble breathing, not diarrhea.

"If people are panicking about not having enough, then I’m surprised it’s not food," he said. "If everything’s shut down, that’s a more pressing issue than toilet paper."

Trying to find sense in what may just be a panicked response might be futile. Yet if there’s comfort in having stacks of toilet paper at your house, maybe it doesn’t matter.