By Andrew Grant

For years of we have watched starving drought-stricken people on our TV screens in distant countries, queuing up and fighting over food as the UN has handed out food rations from the back of a truck. So it was with a sense of astonishment that we all became glued to the news and social media posts when our local supermarkets shelves were emptied of …. you guessed it …. TOILET PAPER!

Even before the Covid-19 anxieties took a grip on our country, people were seen queuing for hours. Some were even arrested for fighting over toilet paper. In one case police had to cordon off the toilet-paper aisle with crime scene tape after a knife was produced in an attempt to procure the suddenly scarce item.

Fear of a virus has caused a run on essential items.
The media includes in this list toilet paper. The virus has not yet come to your country.
Do you: A) Stockpile? OR B) Wait? What is the most sensible thing to do?
Click to take our quick Facebook poll.

What does this say about our society, and how did we end up like this?

We’ve been working with organisations for 25 years helping them to see the value of collaboration. In watching ‘Toiletgate’ play out, I’ve seen now the same game theory is often at play – whether it be a run on toilet paper, a run on the banks (referred to as ‘Fractional Reserved Banking’ and seen in the subprime mortgage GFC era) and even the destruction of the centuries old Balinese rice paddies.

Just how does this supermarket behaviour reflect on our behaviour at work? We seem to be constantly under the dilemma of being told to collaborate, and yet it is often in the context of a highly competitive environment. What’s important to understand is there are good reasons to collaborate – and good reasons not to do. The real question that needs to be asked is, under what conditions will people collaborate? It seems Toiletgate has not created the right conditions!

Why the loo paper run?

The state NSW Health Minister tweeted with a photo of bare shop shelves “Pls STOP! Calm common sense would tell us if some individuals were not buying excessive numbers of toilet rolls … there would be no problem”. He is right, but what he didn’t understand is the game theory behind this problem reflected in the age old ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ and ‘tragedy of commons’.

Game theory can unpack Toiletgate and explain why it was much bigger than our bare supermarket shelves:

  • There are always 2 players: 1) You and 2) Everyone else
  • There are 2 strategies: A) Panic buy or B) Act normal.

Each combination of player and strategy has a payoff.

  • If everyone else decides to stock up (panic buy), the shops run out of supplies
  • If every individual (eg you) acts normally, the supplies stay high as normal.

But since we don’t trust or can’t take the risk that everyone will act normally, we all defect. The action is panic buying and the result is empty shelves.

So why does this panic buying happen, and are we stupid for partaking in this?

I admit it, when I saw a person carrying rolls of paper while I was walking through my local mall heading to buy some shoes recently I panicked. We had plenty at home, but I felt had to stop and ask him where he got his supplies from. I turned and headed straight back to the near empty aisles to stock up. Wouldn’t you do the same?

This same game theory plays out in nearly every encounter in the office. Although many organisations run entire conference themes and produce mission statements about collaboration, they often don’t address the underlying environment which is set up to encourage competition. Like the run on toilet paper it only takes one party to defect and lead the lose/lose race to the bottom and panic begins.

It’s not stupidity, it’s game theory rationality. But sadly, the outcome is ‘no collaboration’ and the behaviour results in a lose/lose situation for all players.

Immunity is a long way off

It appears from this loo run incident that even supposedly sophisticated civilised societies are tribal when push comes to shove, pardon the pun. Our fancy corporate offices are also not immune to this behaviour. In fact research shows that there are more psychopaths in high corporate positions than the average population (noting that psychopaths’ behaviour is always about short term “I win / you lose”, which ends up with a long term net result of “lose/lose”).

The motivation behind apparent collaboration can be deceptive. Many animals, including humans, will only cooperate if it’s in their best interests to do so. As a species, we seem to be designed to protect ourselves as individuals – often at the expense of the collective good.

This can reach as far as the white house with experts believing that the way Trump was initially framing the Covid-19 crisis reflected more about his interest in being re-elected, which in this case was in direct conflict with the truth and the general population’s best interests. But long term we all actually need to be able to collaborate with each other in order to survive.

Who is really to blame?

Of course, where we are now: watching and commenting on our stupidity, yet secretly hoarding, has been in the making for many years now.

We’ve been conditioned by reality TV, which has confused us as to what collaboration and competition really means. Consider the “Outwit — Outplay — Outlast” Survivors’ tag line. But look below the glitz and you will see that these reality TV shows are just another Toiletgate.

“Survivor” isn’t really about enduring life on a deserted beach, “The Bachelor” isn’t about marriage, ”The Amazing Race” leaves little time to appreciate any amazing cultures, and “Married at First Sight / Love is Blind” isn’t about loving couples learning to live together in a long term collaborative partnership. These ruthless racing, singing and cooking shows are this generation’s Stanford Prison Experiment. In this experiment, once one role playing ‘guard’ behaved badly, the rest followed suit.

Matt Ridley who wrote the book ‘The Origins of Virtue’ simply says “We’ll cooperate if it’s in our self-interest, and we won’t if it’s not.” This virus outbreak forced us to re-examine our everyday assumptions upon which we base our actions towards others, whether we are nurturing parents, siblings, or trade partners. The conclusion of many theorists who study this topic is that whatever else we are, we are co-operators by nature, yet key forms of cooperation are often thwarted by the conditions of modern life.

Is there any collaboration strategy that works? Maybe the lessons of the ‘loo paper panic’ might encourage organisations to put in place real proactive preemptive collaboration strategies with measurable KPIs and accountable mission statements, so collaboration becomes more than a fancy theme at next year’s conference.

Are you sure you have a truly collaborative environment? Try answering the following questions:

  1. What happens when the right decision for the individual is the wrong one for the group?
  2. How can a potentially cooperative strategy get an initial foothold in an environment that is predominantly uncooperative?
  3. What type of strategy can thrive in a diverse environment composed of other individuals using a wide range of more or less sophisticated strategies?
  4. Under what conditions can such a strategy, once fully established among a group of people, resist invasion by a less cooperative strategy?

I suggest you consider these questions as you deliberate on the loo with your toilet paper stockpile!

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About The Collaboration Deception program:

The Collaboration Deception intelligent team building program, designed by Andrew Grant and Dr Gaia Grant PhD (TIRIAN), is a unique interactive social experiment (keynote/workshop) to help organisations achieve the following:

  • Understand the forces at work with the dilemma of collaborating in a competitive environment
  • Determine what non-collaborative behaviours (eg- defecting / freeriding) occur in business contexts and what impact they have
  • Explore collaborative behaviours and expectations in their workplace

“The Collaboration Deception”:- incorporating “Win As Much as you Can” simulation.
This is a unique combination of a Keynote talk, Business simulation and Workshop that explores the important question “Under what conditions will people COLLABORATE?”

Gaia Grant (PhD) is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Sydney Business School in the Discipline of Strategy, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, focusing on research into innovation paradoxes and ambidextrous leadership. Gaia is also a Director of Tirian Innovative Solutions, & the co-author (with Andrew Grant) of a number of books including ‘The Innovation Race’, and “Who Killed Creativity?”.

Andrew Grant is the Director of Tirian Innovative Solutions, and co-author (with Dr Gaia Grant) of a number of books including ‘The Innovation Race’, and “Who Killed Creativity?”.