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The compulsive society in the Corona crisis

The call that precedes us Germans: we are orderly, punctual and hard-working. Or in the words of the psychologist Gottfried Barth: “We Germans tend to be compulsive.” In times of the Corona crisis, these tendencies are perhaps even more evident, whether in the hoarding of toilet paper or noodle packs, or perhaps in some places in meticulous adherence to the measures adopted by the government. But why do we tend towards compulsive behaviour?

The function of compulsivity

“Compulsion protects the subject from constantly pressing, restless impulses. Compulsion thus seems to fulfil a fundamental need for security in humans” (Lang, 2000, p. 258). According to this, compulsive behaviour has the function of bringing seemingly unpredictable areas of life under an apparent control by focusing on cognitively controlled actions (Lang & Koepsell, 2018). Through actions such as hoarding toilet paper, we achieve a sense of control.

The psychoanalysis of compulsiveness

Freud attributed this desire for control, order and cleanliness to the so-called anal phase (2nd-3rd year of life). During this time, children learn to control their excretions and thus their own bodies. At the same time, the toddler comes into contact with the demands of the environment for the first time: the parents’ wish that the child becomes “dry” as quickly as possible and follow the rules. If the child’s caregivers now set rigid norms, for example in the form of a parenting style geared towards punishment, these can be internalized by the child and later (3rd-6th year of life) lead to the formation of a rigid instance of conscience that causes feelings of guilt.
In the anal phase infants are not yet able to distinguish between speaking, thinking and acting. What is said is assumed to occur in reality: A child who expresses the wish that the new born sibling should be taken to the neighbours assumes that this wish will be fulfilled at the moment of the pronunciation. According to Freud, people who have developed a rigid instance of conscience in childhood may be fixated on the anal phase in adulthood. These people, the so-called “anal character”, thus feel guilty for aggressive wishes or thoughts, as if they had realized them, just as they assumed as infants. The compulsive behaviour of the anal character serves to mitigate this sense of guilt. It is about appeasing the instance of conscience through so-called “magical rituals” (Boessmann & Remmers, 2016) – like the hoarding toilet paper. The toilet paper as a symbol for cleaning gives the compulsive person the feeling of “cleaning away” the guilt and thus alleviating their fear of punishment. The attempt is made to undo guilty (aggressive) wishes or thoughts.

The compulsiveness in the Corona crisis

The measures to contain the Corona pandemic restrict fundamental human rights, such as exit restrictions, contact and assembly bans. Even if this is legal according to the Infection Protection Act (IfSG), these restrictions on freedom can lead to aggression. Aggressive thoughts and wishes towards the government and decision makers must be suppressed by compulsive people. Feelings of guilt arising from this must now be mitigated by compulsive actions as a kind of compromise. On the one hand, the rules and measures of the government are adhered – in the spirit of external compliance (Lang & Koepsell, 2018). On the other hand, aggression can be passively acted out within this framework: By hoarding products deemed important in the crisis, one tries to gain an advantage for oneself. It is not solidarity or a sense of community that is at stake in these moments of hoarding. Rather, it is about meeting and securing one’s own needs. Even if something is taken away from others. In this context, Lang (2015) speaks of an “inhibited rebel”. But there are also the more active rebels of the Corona crisis: those who gather to demonstrate against the restriction of their freedom and fundamental rights, as happened, for example, last week at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. A more active way to rebel against external control and to act out aggression within the legal and social framework.

Conclusion: Society vs. individual

The compulsiveness of the Germans seems to have grown historically and to be anchored in our basic values. Especially in crises, these mechanisms make it easier for us – in the preclinical area – to deal with changing environmental requirements. In the Corona crisis, toilet paper plays an important role. It seems that the hoarding of this hygiene product gives us a feeling of control. Feelings of guilt due to aggressive impulses are “cleaned away” and aggressions are acted out within a socially acceptable framework. The question of whether the inhibited or more active rebels have found a better way to deal with the challenges of the Corona crisis remains open. One thing is clear: even if such tendencies can be observed in Germany or perhaps the entire Western world, we are all different and with it the expression of the compulsiveness of one and all.

Psychologist (B.Sc., M.Sc.) Leonie Derwahl


Boessmann, U. & Remmers, A. (2016).  Praktischer Leitfaden der tiefenpsychologisch fundierten Richtlinientherapie – Wissenschaftliche Grundlagen, Psychodynamische Grund-begriffe, Diagnostik und Therapietechniken. Berlin: Deutscher Psychologen Verlag.

Lang, H (2000a). Zwang in Neurose, Psychose und psychosomatischer Erkrankung. In Lang, H., Strukturale Psychoanalyse. Gesammelte Aufsätze, Bd.1. Frankfurt a.M.: Surhkamp.

Lang, H. (2015). Der gehemmte Rebell – Struktur, Psychodynamik und Therapie von Menschen mit Zwangsstörungen. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

Lang, H. & Koepsell, K. (2018). Zwangsstörungen. In Gumz, A. & Hörz-Sagstetter, S. (Hrsg.), Psychodynamische Psychotherapie in der Praxis. Weinheim Basel: Beltz Verlag.