Applied Psychology

The Curious Case of The Shopping Cart Theory

Will this tell you if you’re a good person?

Let’s do a little experiment. I ask you to be completely honest and I promise with no judgment, not a soul will know your answer.


Think of this scenario in your head.

Let’s say it’s grocery day.

Your checklist is all crossed out, brown bags are settled, your shopping cart is emptied and you’re ready to go home.

But have you ever caught yourself thinking twice if you’ll return that shopping cart to its designated spot?

Recall… What did your instinct tell you? What was your response?

Whatever you did, it’s just between you and this screen. I asked this first for you to have a full grasp of what The Shopping Cart Theory is all about.

It did blow up on twitter last May when this account @ANTICHRISTJARED posted about an anonymously created theory that says it’s “The ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self- governing.”

Based on the theory, “To return the shopping cart is an easy, convenient task and one which we all recognize as correct, the appropriate thing to do. To return the shopping cart is objectively right. There are no situations other than dire emergencies in which a person is not able to return their cart. Simultaneously, it is not illegal to abandon your shopping cart. Therefore the shopping cart presents itself as the apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it.”

We may never know who created this or I might guess it’s a grocery staff propaganda who’s fed up with arranging carts for customers. But whoever it is partly it holds water.

In the given scenario, there’s no dire emergency. We solely rely on a person’s decision to choose what is right. Right- to return the cart and Wrong- to leave it somewhere. Self-governance only does a little in explaining the behavior of a person.

Self-governance means

Usually comprises some or all of the following:

  • A code of conduct that outlines acceptable behavior within the unit or group.
  • A means of ensuring external authority does not become involved unless and until certain criteria are satisfied.
  • A means of facilitating the intended functions of the unit or group.

It could prove you’re a self-governing person, but it doesn’t mean you’re a good or bad person. I believe it is the reason why it sparked an interest in many. An act so ill-considered but if you think about it, it explains how we operate.

If you apply Positive Psychology by Martin Seligman. Most likely you will also return the cart.

  • Positive experiences (like happiness, joy, inspiration, and love). In this case, you’ll return the cart because you find joy in doing what is right.
  • Positive states and traits (like gratitude, resilience, and compassion).You’ll return the cart because you’re grateful you’re done with your grocery.
  • Positive institutions (applying positive principles within entire organizations and institutions). You’ll return the cart because it is what was asked by the store.

On the other hand, BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model stated there are three elements that must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur:

Motivation, Ability, and Prompt.

If time is already given under Prompt, at least the ability and motivation should exist.

Ability: Are you physically able to return the cart?

Motivation: Do you still have the energy to return the cart?

Getting complicated right? It is probably the reason why it created a thread of discussion.

In the grand scheme of things, you can’t use the shopping cart theory as a basis if a person is good or bad. Morality is comparatively complex if you will base it on this theory.

As I checked the netizen’s responses, I believe that is where the disconnect is coming from. The theory could be a test for one’s morals but not a measurement of it.

It just means our individual differences could get in the way of doing what is right.

I also wonder if this theory could cause a ripple effect that one day we won’t see any scattered shopping carts again.

One thing is certain, simple things can be a test of our character.

When we do what is right when no one is looking. Our character is being strengthened. It builds a sense of integrity by standing for what is right and not operating mainly within the context of reward and punishment.

So next time you’re finished with your grocery, ask yourself.

To return or not return the shopping cart, that is the question.

Taming my rambled thoughts through writing | Bibliophile | Cinephile | Editor of Pluma Manila Publication | Wallobooks Ambassador of Hope

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