Social behavior and the truly ethical.

by w3woody

Why Don’t People Return Their Shopping Carts?

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.

But social norms are not the only thing which drive our behavior. From the description of those who always return a shopping cart:

Returners. These people always return their carts to the receptacle regardless of how far away they’ve parked or what the weather is like. They feel a sense of obligation and/or feel badly for the people responsible for collecting the carts.

I read a bit of research elsewhere discussing the Paradox of Choice, which suggested that those who are moral–that is, those who have a moral code derived from a religious system of belief–tend to be happier than those who do not have a moral center, for the simple reason that morality reduces choice.

Now I believe a lot of researchers who followed the research behind concept of the paradox of choice came away with the wrong lesson: that restricting choice leads to happiness. It just needs to be packaged correctly, in the same way we now package toothpaste or beer ads. We may rail against paternalism (the above essay does), but there is always someone who believes we must try anyway. For their own good. To increase happiness.

To me, the conclusion to be drawn is not that external forces need to reduce choice so we can be happier. We are all individuals with our own choices, beliefs, and things that make us happy. Often our own personal choices don’t overlap: one person’s waste of time is another person’s exciting sporting event.


To me, the conclusion to be drawn is this:

Define who you believe you are.

Now eliminate those choices which you believe are not who you want to be.

If you try to make choices that go against who you believe you are, then reevaluate those choices: maybe your self-perception is wrong. Maybe your choices are a habit that need to be broken.

Adjust your expectations–by adjusting your self-image or adjusting your choices.

Wash, rinse and repeat.

Know yourself.

And once you know yourself, once you realize that who you want to be is the person who returns the shopping cart so as to make the lives of the people around you a little easier, because it was borrowed property, and because it’s not reasonable to expect the world to pick up after your messes–then you’ll find there is no choice.

You just return the cart.


To me, the most repugnant thing I have ever read anywhere by someone who sincerely believes in what they say, which has thus far gone unquestioned by most of our modern society, is this:

Problems arise where there is a choice to be made by policy makers between people’s present and likely future choices. Goodin points out that it is not a simple matter to decide which of a person’s choices should be prioritised. For example, it could be argued that paternalist interventions are necessary to ensure that the poor spend what money they have on healthy food, rather than on items that are not in their long-term interest, such as fast food, alcohol and tobacco (this is more or less the logic behind the policy of income management of welfare payments).

“The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t … When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea!…”

Nevertheless, where a person is, on all available evidence and accounts, almost guaranteed to subsequently regret their earlier choice, then Goodin views this as being a relatively clear-cut case for paternalist intervention by the state in favour of their future self.

In other words, Goodin would strip the tiny little pleasures a poor person would have–the “tasty” little treat that poor person can barely afford because we believe “it’s better for them.”

Are you fucking kidding me?!?

This sort of bullshit makes me extremely pissed. Think of the condescension behind this. “Well, for their own good we will restrict the choice of poor people because we think they are making poor choices.”

And think further on the horror of this: the man who is “underfed, harassed, bored and miserable”–and we think for their own good that we will take away what little pleasures they can afford because we think they’re making the wrong fucking choice?

This is the attitude behind all of our paternalistic policies, especially those which deal with the poor.

We’d just as soon whip someone then allow them to decide for themselves to return the shopping cart. Because we don’t like shopping carts scattered around the parking lot, we’d rather punish those who refuse to return them for whatever reason.

Unless you really knew me, you have no idea how horrific I find this sort of paternalism. To me, it’s right up there with vivisecting 5 year olds: cutting children open while they are alive and without any sort of anesthesia just for the hell of it.

And yet this is one of the great motivators of a lot of social policy in our world today.

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