Why people don't return shopping carts

Why do so many people just leave their shopping carts in the parking lot after unloading groceries instead of rolling them to the receptacles? Sure, one answer is laziness. But it's actually more interesting than that, involving what kind of cart user you are and how your motivation aligns with two general categories of social norms. You may be someone who always returns the cart, never returns it, only does so if it's convenience, feels pressure to return it from either a cart attendant or someone waiting to park in the spot where your cart is parked, you have children and they get a kick out of returning it. From Krystal D'Costa's "Anthropology in Practice" column in Scientific American:

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.

Supermarkets can try and guide our behavior with receptacles or cart attendants, but they're competing with our own self-serving goals, which in this case may be staying dry, keeping an eye on our children, or simply getting home as quickly as possible, and we're being guided by the ways others behave on top of that. These goals can override the norm because the support provided by the supermarket—ironically—resets the situation before complete chaos is unleashed with carts running rampant in the parking lot. An attendant will most likely step in before that happens. So if we apply this definition of norms to our classification of cart returners, the injunctive norm applies the greatest pressure to Returners and Pressure Returners. These folks are concerned by what others will think of them on some level, and want to adhere to social rule mandating that the carts are returned. Descriptive norms are at play for Convenience Returners and Pressure Returners who are more inclined to act if there is precedent. These folks are more likely to return a cart if there are no carts parked haphazardly. The Never Returners and the Child-Driven Returners are two example of goal-driven actors, which means that they're responding to a more individual need. These two are interesting as they're on opposing ends of the spectrum but still demonstrate the ways an individual goal can work for or against a norm….

As a situation broaches on deviance, more people will trend toward disorder; once we have permission to pursue an alternative action, we will do so if it suits us. Not returning our shopping carts opens the door to throwing our circulars on the ground to parking haphazardly or in reserved spaces to other items that impact the quality of our experience at that establishment.

Why Don't People Return Their Shopping Carts? (SciAm)

(photo: Daniel Blume/Flickr)