Shopping-Cart Psychology: To Return or Not?

Scientific American: “It seems like a basic courtesy to others: you get a cart at the supermarket, you use it to get your groceries and bring them to your vehicle, and then you return it for others to use. And yet, it’s not uncommon for many people to ignore the cart receptacle entirely and leave their carts next to their cars or parked haphazardly on medians. During peak hours, it can mean bedlam. Where does this disregard come from?”

“Social norms fall into two general categories. There are injunctive norms, which drive our responses based on our perception of how others will interpret our actions. This means that we’re inclined to act in certain ways if we think people will think well or think poorly of us. And there are descriptive norms, where our responses are driven by contextual clues. This means we’re apt to mimic behaviors of others—so what we see or hear or smell suggests the appropriate/accepted response or behavior that we should display.”

“The world will likely not end because we aren’t returning our shopping carts—that would be an amazing butterfly effect—but it’s an example of a quality of life issue we can control. That guy who didn’t return his cart may not be a complete jerk. He may just be using the example set by others so he can get home a little more quickly. But if everyone does that, then we’re shifting the balance of what is acceptable, which may have greater ramifications to the social order. We have a greater influence over seemingly mundane situations than we realize.”

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