The division in our country runs beyond politics and into mundane life chores like returning a shopping buggy to the store-provided receptacle.

There are plenty reasons to leave a shopping cart in place once it’s been emptied — the weather’s bad, small children, in a hurry, etc. but ardent cart returners find all such reasons to be less rational and more akin to excuses.

So why doesn’t everyone return their carts to the receptacle? And why is it largely socially acceptable to leave a cart in the middle of the parking lot?

Scientific American explored the phenomena:

A 2008 study published in Science tested behavioral responses against the manipulation of injunctive and descriptive norms to see if a violation of one norm would lead people to violations of other, unrelated norms. In the first test, researchers targeted participants who parked their bicycles in two alleys. On the walls of the alleys were signs that indicated graffiti was not permitted. One alley had no graffiti, while the other did, despite the signs. Researchers attached a flyer to the handles of bicycles in both alleys so that the owners needed to physically remove the flyers. In the alley with graffiti on the wall, 69% threw the flyer on the ground or hung the flyer on another bicycle compared with 33% in the alley with no graffiti. The researchers reported that the anti-graffiti signs were readily visible and all entrants to the alleys glanced at the signs. The appearance of graffiti on the walls in defiance of the signs suggested that it was appropriate to break another norm: littering.

They replicated these results in two additional tests. For example, they set up temporary fences along two parking lots and posted No Trespassing signs and No Bicycle signs. While the temporary fences did have a gap that a person could use to get to their vehicle, the No Trespassing signs were intended to make people walk to another entrance. The No Bicycles sign were intended to signify that people could not lock their bicycles to the fences. At one parking lot, bicycles were left nearby; they were not chained or locked to the fence. At the other parking lot, bicycles were chained to the fence. The results were significant: 82% of participants used the gap if the bicycles were chained to the fence compared with 27% when there were no bicycles chained to the fence.

In the final test, researchers went to a parking garage that served a supermarket and a gym. In one scenario, four carts were strewn about the garage, and in another all carts were in the receptacles. The researchers left flyers on the windows of the cars in the garage and—you guessed it—58% of participants littered (i.e., threw their flyers on the ground) when there were unmanaged shopping carts compared with 30% when all carts were in the receptacle.

TL;DR? In parking garages and lots where there are fewer cart returners, it’s more likely fewer will return their carts. It seems the observance of chaos makes most more likely to participate in the chaos.

Some supermarkets have tried to make this relatively easy: they have cart receptacles throughout the parking lot, a cart attendant to bring the carts back to the store, and some may even rely on a cart “rental” system where you pay for the cart and are reimbursed when it’s returned. In the instances where there is no rental system, people may leave their carts stranded for some of the following reasons:

  • The receptacle is too far from where they’ve parked their car.
  • They have a child whom they do not want to leave unattended.
  • The weather is bad.
  • They have a disability that prohibitive to easy movement.
  • The perception that it’s someone else’s job to collect the carts.
  • They’re leaving the carts for someone else to easily pick up and use.

Similarly, there are five categories of cart users:

Returners. These people always return their carts to the receptacle regardless of how far away they’ve parked or what the weather is like. They feel a sense of obligation and/or feel badly for the people responsible for collecting the carts.

Never Returners. People who never return their carts. They believe it’s someone else’s job to get the carts or the supermarket’s responsibility, and show little regard for where the carts are left.

Convenience Returners. People who will return their carts if they parked close to the receptacle, or if they see a cart attendant.

Pressure Returners. People who will return their carts only if the cart attendant is present or if the adjacent car’s owner is present, which means they don’t have an easy avenue for abandoning their carts.

Child-Driven Returners. These are people with children who view it as a game to return carts, often riding them back to the receptacle or pushing them into the stacked lines.

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.

I’m an avid cart returner. While pregnant, I began parking close to a cart receptacle to make it easier to return the shopping buggy. This is a practice I’ve maintained post-partum. Barring extenuating circumstances, I believe it rude to expect others to pick up after me. Not to mention the potential for damage a rogue cart might cause to someone’s private property. But that’s just my take. What’s yours? Do you return your cart?

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