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  • Writer's pictureGreg Graber

The Shopping Cart Theory

Updated: May 10, 2021

I am a big fan of the late John Wooden. Wooden, who is widely hailed as one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball, is also known for his body of work in the field of character development. His maxims and motivational quotes fill volumes of books and are frequently espoused by leaders in every domain from athletics to education to business. It would be an extreme understatement to call John Wooden a "man of principle."

One of my favorite quotes by John Wooden is "The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching." I like this quote so much that I have used it numerous times over the years to my students in my weekly convocation addresses. One of the primary objectives for our convocations is to teach our students character education. When I talk about this quote, I implore them to do the right things, even when no one is looking and in times when they know they won't credit for their good behavior. I tell them that not only is this how good behavior habits are formed, but it also makes us feel good to display good character through our actions when no one is looking. Doing good deeds is not about receiving credit, I tell them. It's about always trying to do the right thing.

After hearing one of my spills on this subject during one of my SEL lessons, one of my faculty members told me I should research "The Shopping Cart Theory." So I did.

After an extensive search on the internet, I found a bunch of postings and a few articles on The Shopping Cart Theory. Similar to Wooden's quote, the basic underlying principle of this theory is that people with good character will do what they are supposed to when left to their own devices. In essence, a shopping center parking lot seems like a great place to test this out. With this in mind, whether or not an individual returns the shopping cart to its designated carousel or spot before leaving may be seen as a litmus test for basically determining a person's character.

Supporters of this theory contend that returning a shopping cart is an easy task, and it is something in which we all recognize as the socially acceptable thing to do. Furthermore, it is not illegal to abandon a shopping cart after use in a parking lot. No one will be punished if they don't return a cart. A reward will not be given for returning a cart, so the only reason a person returns a shopping card to its proper designation is out of the goodness of their heart. In other words, it is "the right thing to do." Therefore, it would be safe to assume that people with good character return their shopping carts, and people with character flaws leave their carts anywhere they want and drive off.

Some individuals feel so strongly about this subject they have formed social media groups to shame people who don't return their carts. One such group, Cart Narcs, videos the offenders and calls them out during their transgressions. I have to admit, it is pretty funny to watch some of these. I also found it refreshing to see individuals get called out for seemingly not doing the right thing. I mean, what kind of lazy jerk leaves a cart out in the park lot?! It would seem that many others agree with my assessment on this, as the Cart Narc page on Facebook has over 81,000 followers.

There is a grocery store chain I really like called Aldi. This German family-owned chain has 10,000 stores in twenty countries. In the true spirit of German efficiency, Aldi has figured out how to cut down significantly the number of shopping carts not returned to their proper spots. All of the carts are attached in a bin at Aldi. In order to use a cart and get it out of the bin, a customer has to put a quarter in a slot on the handle of the cart. Once this is done, it automatically releases the cart for use. When the shopper is finished with the cart, the shopper returns it to the bin, and the quarter is popped out and released back to the customer. While this system of essentially renting the shopping cart for use is highly efficient in terms of cutting down abandoned shopping carts, I am not sure if this method could be used as a means to measure someone's character, because it could be argued that the fear of losing a quarter may be more of a motivating factor than doing the right thing for the sake of the good deed.

After reading about this theory, I initially thought that this would be a wonderful metaphor to use as a character education lesson for one of my SEL classes. Then I dug a little deeper into the subject and had a change of heart.

My further investigation on the subject lead me to find a research article in Scientific American. In this piece, Krystal D'Costa suggested that not everyone who abandoned a shopping cart is necessarily lazy or lacking character. She sighted some of their possible reasons for doing such:

The receptacle is too far from where they parked.

They don't want to leave children unattended.

The weather is bad.

They have a disability that is prohibitive to easy movement.

They have the perception that it is someone else's job to collect the carts.

They are leaving the carts for someone else to easily pick up and use.

After reading this, I felt extremely judgmental. I thought to myself how ridiculous it is that I was planning a lesson on character education that was basically based on judging other people's character.

So what did I do? I used this entire experience as the topic for my next SEL discussion with some our our students. I explained to them how in my effort to come up with a lesson on character education, I showed judgmental behavior. We talked about about The Shopping Cart Theory and how things and people are not what they always appear to be. We also decided that in our efforts to embody John Wooden's quote about the "true test of someone's character," we should focus more on leading by example and try not to judge others so harshly.

According to CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning), one of the five core competencies for social and emotional learning (SEL) is responsible decision making. One of the things we can do to help build this skill in children is to role play with them by posing "what would you do type questions" in imagined difficult situations. With this in mind, I asked our students if we see someone not returning a shopping cart what could we do to make the situation better. A little girl in the back said softly, "Not judge them." I agreed, and said that was a good start. Then a boy in the front of the classroom said, "Return the cart for them." I smiled, and then I thought to myself that John Wooden would be proud of this boy.

Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL & Mindfulness at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website:

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