Jimmy’s RealClearMarkets Op-Ed | Sorry, Force Isn’t Needed to Get People to Return Shopping Carts

Written by on July 9, 2020

Last week, a Facebook friend shared a meme that caught fire a couple months ago.  Originally from an anonymous 4chan post and then made viral by @ANTICHRISTJARED on Twitter, the “Shopping Cart Theory” meme claims to determine if you are a good or bad person based on whether you return your shopping cart.

The theory itself is as follows: “You must return the shopping cart out of the goodness of your own heart.  You must return the shopping cart because it is the right thing to do.”  Furthermore, the only acceptable reason a person is “not able to return their cart” is when they face “dire emergencies.”

If you fail to return the cart, then you are “no better than an animal, an absolute savage who can only be made to do what is right by threatening them with a law and the force that stands behind it.”

The Twitterverse was irrevocably split after Jared tweeted about it, yet those opposed to this harsh but seemingly well-meaning argument focused on making excuses for those who don’t return a cart.

“It leaves out variables,” tweeted one user.  “What if the return cart section is really far away? What if you are running late for something? What if you have small children that you can’t leave unattended in a car?’ one wrote.

But these critics miss the real point.  The “Shopping Cart Theory” is a fallacy, from start to finish.

First, it presumes the decision to return or not return a shopping cart is a morality test stemming solely from the fact that there is no force to compel a particular action.  Yet they all fail to see the absence of non-coercive incentives.

Humans tend to do something as a reaction to/means of avoiding coercive force, or we do it to advance our perceived self-interest. Rarely do we operate under purely altruistic motives.  What’s more, there’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong with that.

As Adam Smith wrote in Wealth of Nations, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”

In short, the butcher doesn’t offer food because he is being considerate; nor does he offer meat because he is compelled to by some threat of force (e.g., government).

Suggesting someone might not return a shopping cart simply because no one is forcing them to is not only simplistic, but it’s actually dangerous.  Taken to its logical conclusion, shopping cart litmus testers assert the only way to ensure people will act in a way that benefits society – and don’t become “savage animals” – is through “a law and the force behind it.”  That is, coercion.

Barring very rare circumstances, I almost always return the shopping cart because I feel a small sense of satisfaction for doing the right thing.  At the same time, I know that if most others join me in putting their carts back, then I won’t be inconvenienced when I leave the store and encounter carts all over the place, blocking my way.  Thus, not only is it the respectful and right thing to do, but it serves my self-interest.

If someone doesn’t return their cart, what does that tell us?  Sure, it might reveal the person chose not to because they weren’t forced to put their cart back.  Even more likely, it could just tell us they didn’t see enough benefit in doing so.

The Fogg Behavior Model provides an apt guide.  This model looks at three conditions that must occur together to drive behavior: Motivation, Ability, and a Prompt.  In this case, a shopper must ask, “Do I feel like returning the cart?  Can I physically complete the task?  Do I have the time to do it?”

All things being equal, most able-bodied people will, and do, return the cart.  Most people who don’t probably have a reason.  If it was necessary to use coercion, stores would already do it because they’d have cause to.  You might see a cart rental system set up like the stroller rental at a mall.  Instead, stores have a clerk collect those carts that are strewn about and bring the full lineup back inside.  It works well and is efficient.

Coercion is one way to motivate people to action, but it is far from the only way.  Nor is it the best way – especially if you’re going to extrapolate the shopping cart to broader human behavior.  In fact, government using coercion as a motivational tool has had dire consequences on economies and societies across the globe and throughout history.

The Shopping Cart Fallacy might lead us to think government needs to act with greater force to guide positive behavior.  However, we must always remember the central role of natural and market incentives in our daily lives, lest we empower government with more kneejerk, unnecessary power over society to maximally produce the “right” or “moral” outcomes.

That kind of tyranny would be far worse than a parking lot full of scattered shopping carts.

Click here to read Jimmy’s July 9 op-ed at RealClearMarkets.

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