How to create change one behavior at a time.

Shopping Carts and the State of Your Soul

According to Fast Company and Scientific American, I am a jerk.

Why? Because I only return my shopping cart some of the time.

The judgment heaped upon my head comes from a Scientific American blog post on shopping cart behavior, which was also featured in Fast Company. Turns out I am a “Convenience Returner” – one of those people who only return their carts if a receptacle is close by.

There’s lots of interesting information here, including a look at how contextual clues about social norms influence behaviors. But what fascinates me most is how the post was framed as a moral issue – and how people passionately responded in kind.

First off, although Fast Company’s characterization of non-returners as “just lazy, just jerks, or just lazy jerks” claimed to be “backed by real science,” the only study cited in the blog post had nothing to do with shopping cart return behavior. Instead, carts were used as a prop to see whether people without carts would be more likely to litter in a parking garage when carts were left askew. (The answer is yes, nearly twice as likely. You can read the full study here).

But the blog post also portrayed Returners as moral standard bearers – and Returners responded in kind. The post attracted so many comments, mostly from self-righteously outraged Returners, that Scientific American wrote a follow-up post.   

Leaving aside the moral judgments, and looking instead at the behavioral determinants at play, it’s clear that Returners have a strong self-standard that drives their behavior, whatever the prevailing norm. The rest of us, meanwhile, look around for social clues. For example, a colleague who was initially shocked at the raft of unreturned carts in Florida parking lots – returning was the absolute norm in her home state of Missouri – has since become acclimated, and is now a Convenience Returner, too.

But from a behavior change marketing standpoint, the biggest lesson for me is that moral judgments rarely work. Calling me a jerk didn’t make me want to change; it just made me dislike the ranting Returners (thus allowing me to justify my behavior).

For “doers” – people who already do a target behavior, which usually includes the very people who are advocating for a particular behavior change – shaming and moralizing can be tempting. But as a recent New York Time article noted, telling people they are wrong simply doesn’t work. Cognitive dissonance kicks in, and when we have to choose between a dearly held self-concept – such as “I am a nice person” – and evidence to the contrary – i.e., this article says I act like a “jerk” – people can reduce dissonance by modifying either our self-concept or the evidence. And as you probably guessed, the evidence usually loses.

To get people to change their behavior, empathy and a clear-eyed look at the behavioral barriers are a more effective place to start. And in the meantime, I’ll continue to “return my damn shopping cart” whenever I see fit.

New Call-to-action