There’s a little something called the Shopping Cart Theory. Maybe you’ve heard of it, but if you haven’t, it goes a little something like this: You can tell a lot about a person based on one simple thing — whether or not they put the shopping cart back in the corral after they’re done with it. If they return the cart to its designated place (even if no one is watching), it means that they will do the prosocial thing even if there’s no punishment for not doing so.
If instead they leave the shopping cart where it is and simply drive off, leaving it unsecured in the parking lot where it might roll away and get lost and/or damage other carts, well… then the theory states they’re not a good person. Or at least they’re a selfish actor who doesn’t care about making things harder or more unpleasant for strangers (whether that’s the cart pusher that has to travel further to rescue carts or the other shoppers whose cars might get damaged by runaway shopping carts, etc.).
(Note: Obviously, this reasoning doesn’t account for things like physical disabilities or other extenuating individual differences, but don’t let that hang you up too badly. The model presumes that the individual in question can return the cart. Also, it’s an analogy, and analogies are always imperfect.)
This idea got quite popular a while back, with people arguing back and forth about it — as people like to do online. Me, I sort of smiled at it and moved on. I had a stray thought that maybe it would be something to write about on this blog, but I never really had an opportunity. Nothing I could actually add to the discussion.
Until now, that is.
Because, you see, the other day I was out shopping with my significant other, and while we were in the store picking up a few supplies, a storm broke out.
When we stepped to the exit with our cart, we noted it was downpouring rain.
“I could bring the car to you while you stay with the groceries,” he said.
I gestured around at all the other people who were doing just that. “Well, it’d be a bit of a circus navigating all this,” I said.
He nodded. “I’d do it though if you wanted.”
I smiled. “I know.” And then I added, “It’s only rain. I don’t mind.”
“Alright,” he said. “On your mark, get set, go.”
And we sprinted out into the downpour. I had shoes that had holes in them (they were aerated joggers for running, designed to keep feet cool, not dry), so my feet were quickly drenched. But I jogged after him as he drove the cart through surprisingly already formed puddles.
We both laughed like children playing in the rain. We could barely hear each other, even so, because the rain was so loud.
When we got to the car, he told me it was unlocked and to get inside. He stayed outside to unload the groceries. And I watched as he walked the cart to a corral and came back.
“You know,” I said, “you’re a really good person.”
“Why’s that?” he said.
“Well, not only did you let me get in the car instead of insisting that I help with the loading,” I said.
He beamed a smile at this.
“But,” I continued, “you returned the cart to the corral, even though it’s downpouring.” I told him about the Shopping Cart Theory.
“So what you’re saying,” he said, “is that good people put back their shopping carts. Even better people do it in the rain.”
“No,” I said, “great people return them in the rain. The best people return them in the rain.”
Because my favorite people don’t just do the right thing when no one’s forcing them to; they also do it when it’s hard. It’s often something they take for granted about themselves, but I think it’s amazing.