BEHAVIOURAL psychologists will surely have a field day in future analysing how the British public responded to the threat from coronavirus by stockpiling toilet roll.

To me, it bears all the hallmarks of the 'Prisoners' Dilemma', a famous paradox used in game theory to illustrate why everything from society to international relations is often hobbled by human beings' innate selfishness.

For the uninitiated it goes like this. Two alleged criminals are placed in isolation. Both care more about their personal freedom than solidarity with their accomplice. The prosecutor offers each the same deal: if you confess and your accomplice remains silent all charges will be dropped against you and your testimony used to send your accomplice to jail for a long time; the same applies if the accomplice confesses and you choose to stay silent; if both confess they will get early parole; and if both remain silent the prosecutor will settle for token punishments.

The crux of the dilemma is that whatever the other does, each is better off confessing than remaining silent. But the outcome obtained when both confess is worse for each than the outcome they would have obtained had both remained silent.

The irony is that because neither trusts the other to "do the right thing" (remaining silent instead of shopping the other in the hope of getting off), both choose to act in their own self-interest - and end up worse off.

So if you want to understand why hoardes of panic buyers are clearing the shelves of pasta, paracetamol and antibacterial hand gel despite retailers assuring them that there is no need, and why they feel able to dismiss thoughts of elderly or more vulnerable people unable to load up a car or to afford huge stockpiles, the Prisoners' Dilemma is a pretty good illustration.

They are behaving selfishly because they expect that everyone else will too. Perhaps they are simply scared and want to ensure their family is protected. But the fundamental point is a lack of trust between individuals.

I may be wrong, but I am not aware tales of panic buying and stockpiling being reported in Asian nations such as China, Japan and South Korea.

But when coronavirus swept through the West, one of the first things citizens of Australia, Europe and the US did was to plunder the supermarket shelves.

Perhaps it is a marker of our contrasting cultural norms?: the West values liberty and celebrates individualism; East Asian traditions seek to balance the interests of the individual with their wider community, with each person seeing themselves in the context of their family, neighbourhood, and nation and encouraged to be mindful of others in whatever they say and do.

It is notable that when a World Health Organisation team was parachuted into China in February on a fact-finding mission, its experts came back describing that everywhere they went they encountered "a sense of responsibility and collective action".

All over China, not just in the epicentre of Hubei province, people had voluntarily quarantined themselves and were cooperating with neighbourhood leaders appointed to ensure that people complied with instructions to self-isolate or socially distance themselves as much as possible.

Yes, of course China's Communist political system makes it easier to implement and enforce stringent lockdowns.

But now the democracies of Europe are fast realising that these same tough measures will be the only way to curtail a virus that has no respect for cultural values or borders.

Italy, the worst hit country in Europe and the first in the continent to impose a lockdown, is beginning to see signs that the spread is slowing. The most recent 24-hour data showed that Italy recorded 3,526 new cases on Tuesday - a rise of 12.6% on the day before and the slowest rate of increase since the contagion first emerged.

The deadly Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918 already showed us the value of of early intervention. In the US, St Louis cancelled events, closed schools, churches, and theatres, and imposed tough social distancing restrictions two days after the the first cases were reported.

Philadelphia delayed doing the same by more than two weeks, with authorities downplaying the significance and allowing a city-wide parade to take place.

The result? In Philadelphia the death rate from pneumonia and influenza peaked at 257 per 100,000 compared to 31 per 100,000 in St Louis.

We know it works, but authorities also know it is hard for people to obey. For now the public are told that they "should" stay away from crowded spaces.

But when I walked home last night there were people in bars and pubs, because - as we know already - people are selfish. Until pubs are forcibly closed, this will continue.

The best advice is to behave as if you are already infected because "no man is an island" and our behaviour, however innocuous it might seem, could have unforeseen and catastrophic consequences on others.