Facebook Has a Favorite Grocery Shopping Meme — And It’s Really Problematic

published Apr 12, 2023
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Illustration of a woman leaving the grocery store and leaving her shopping cart behind her in the middle of the parking lot with shocked people watching her

We’ve long used the stars to determine what kind of person we are, but are shopping carts our next guide?

If you’re confused by this opening line, you probably haven’t been on Facebook lately, or been on the receiving end of this long-viral graphic (aka the Shopping Cart Theory). This snippet of internet memedom puts the humble shopping cart at the center of a philosophical question of the ages: Am I a good person, or a bad person? Or, perhaps more to the point: Is my neighbor a good person or a bad person? 

What Is the Shopping Cart Theory?

While this humble-seeming graphic shows an unsuspecting shopping cart .PNG, just longing to be reunited with its digital corral, the content of it throws a big moral left hook: Return your shopping cart? You’re a functioning member of society. Leave it in the parking lot? You might as well be a wild animal in the eyes of society. 

On the one hand, returning a shopping cart to the store is, by default, a task that one does not necessarily have to do (you’re not being forced or fined, after all), and yet it’s something that is done with the betterment of a collective community in mind (by way of less unobstructed parking spots, more carts readily available for use, maybe even to help a grocery worker save some time).

To return a shopping cart to its designated area, according to the theory, is the “ultimate litmus test to prove if someone is capable of self-governing.” It’s an irresistibly simple theory, but one that’s not without its issues.

What Is Self-Governing? 

Aristotle himself believed that all individuals have a natural capacity for virtue and self-improvement and is seen as the great-great-great grandfather of self-governance. The TLDR; on self-governance can be summed up simply as the responsibility of individuals to regulate themselves without outside authority. In other words, doing the “right” or rather, virtuous, thing when no one is looking (like returning your shopping cart) is a way to preserve freedom (or just to merely avoid chaos).

Anthropologist Krystal D’Costa reports in Scientific American that people return carts according to social norms, which fall into two general categories. First, there are injunctive norms, “Which means that we’re inclined to act in certain ways if we think people will think well or think poorly of us.” Speaking quietly in libraries is a good example of an injunctive norm. They’re the societal norms you feel you “ought” to do.

Secondly, there are descriptive norms, where we form our responses driven largely 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,” D’Costa reports. Brushing your teeth twice a day is a common prescriptive norm.

The Big Problem with the Shopping Cart Theory

To reduce “goodness” to physical ability is a textbook example of ableism. Many customers are physically incapable of returning a cart to the store, whether it be due to disability, or children that can’t be left unattended.

Aside from the clear ableism, using physical capability as a benchmark to prove whether we’re “savage” or not is not only a dangerous theory, but also a prime example of social Darwinism, where one’s success in society is defined by being innately “better” than others.

Why Is the Shopping Cart Theory So Irresistible?

While not returning a cart hardly merits going straight to cart jail, it might be hard to deny that spotting wayward carts can visibly feel like a fray in the social fabric. So what’s actually driving the longevity of this apparently unkillable piece of copypasta? What is it about grocery carts that push our collective morals button? Is it the visible clutter we’re so upset about? Or are we merely searching for reasons to be disappointed in others?

It’s human nature to quantify and measure what’s around us, and that’s absolutely the case when it comes to measuring relative goodness. On the one hand, if we can find enough proof to self-identify ourselves as a “good person” (by way of returning a shopping cart), there’s a way to maintain a sense of moral superiority over others if they don’t necessarily follow those societal norms. And what better place to get a sample set of society than in a place as integral to communities as a supermarket.

What is it about grocery carts that push our collective morals button? Is it the visible clutter we’re so upset about? Or are we merely searching for reasons to be disappointed in others? 

The supermarket, and by extension the parking lot, is maybe the ultimate sample set of society. As Rhian Sassen writes in her piece “Lost in the Supermarket,” “If the pandemic has made one thing clear, it’s that it is in the aisles of the supermarket where society’s biggest problems and anxieties mingle,” she says. “It is in the supermarket where we witness the rise of feminized, low-paid labor; it is in the supermarket where supply-chain shortages lead to fears concerning our abilities to feed ourselves; it is in the supermarket where questions of disease, climate change, and inflation converge with the very foods we eat.” 

The supermarket is a relatively new invention, a human-created conundrum all its own. Expecting others to think of the collective can often be at odds while trying to provide for the individual, especially in a place as mesmerizing as a supermarket. And to pose the shopping cart theory, a democratically socialist question at its core, in a setting based around consumerism, is kind of the equivalent of watching a snake eat its own tail.

One could argue that it’s perhaps more in the spirit of self-governance to give eachother grace either by returning the carts of other shoppers, or even avoiding judgment altogether and allow the carts return to nature for rewilding.

D’Costa herself reiterates: “The world will likely not end because we aren’t returning our shopping carts.” And although there’s plenty of research that suggests that repetitive rejection of social norms often leads to repeated aberrations that then make a new social fabric (for example, not respecting a line and social distancing ordinances or the advent of women wearing pants), we largely live amongst habitual cart-returners and grocery stores that incentivize the return of carts (see: Aldi’s quarter-deposit system).

“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.”

Krystal D’Costa, anthropologist

“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,” D’Costa states. “But if everyone does that, then we’re shifting the balance of what is acceptable, which may have greater ramifications to the social order.”

Meg Rowley, a licensed social worker based in Vermont, offers more than a bit of food for thought to those of us who feel consumed by the question of our own goodness: “While I try to help decrease a patient’s tendency to put themselves into binary categories (good/bad) through dialectics and non-judgmentalness, that does not mean approval,” she says. 

“For example: If putting a cart back in a corral is aligned with my value of contributing to society and helping others, and one day I don’t put it away, it’s far more beneficial for me to try and understand why I didn’t put it away … ” Rowley continues before adding that it’s often more useful for individuals to find out how they articulate what “goodness” means to them and what values those might look like in practice.

Personally, I try my best to return my shopping cart any which way I can. Whether it be launching it into the corral; leaving it at the store, my arms tied up with bags; or riding it downhill, with just a bit of ungoverned abandon and the wind in my hair, it’ll always manage to find its way back.