February 25, 2022 | LIFE| By Kristen Richards | Illustration by Iris Guo

The Shopping Cart Dilemma is a social theory regarding what choices people make when they are not being watched and therefore not being rewarded or punished.

In this exercise, you have a shopping cart in the empty parking lot of a shopping center, and you have two choices: leave the cart in the middle of the lot or return it to the cart rack with all the other shopping carts. There is no dire emergency, and you do not get rewarded for putting your cart back where you got it. But what is the socially responsible thing to do? No one will see you leave or return the cart, so whatever choice you make is known only by you.

According to a New York Times article from June 2021, “the so-called Shopping Cart Theory has become an article of faith on Reddit and other social media sites. The theory posits that the decision to return a cart is the ultimate test of moral character and a person’s capacity to be self-governing.”

So what about students jay-walking despite the signs asking students to use the crosswalks? Could this be Colorado College’s version of the shopping cart theory? Jaywalking across N. Cascade from Armstrong to Worner is not something that will result in repercussions — unless you walk right into passing traffic. Unlike parking your car in the wrong parking lot, jaywalking will not result in you being ticketed (most of the time).

Students save a minute or so by jaywalking, just as someone who didn’t return their shopping cart would save some time. The benefits and drawbacks of these situations are small and may be unnoticeable.

In the bigger picture, however, these actions are a bit more significant. As spring approaches, CC maintenance staff will attempt to turn the yellow grass into green grass. Part of this effort involves preserving the grass and plants that reside in the median. They may put up signs to keep students from jaywalking across the medians. There could even be an all-school email sent out asking students to please use the crosswalks.

This is where I believe that the idea of self-governing from the Shopping Cart Theory could be applied to the jaywalk vs. crosswalk situation, showing the impacts of social responsibility.

There are no immediate disadvantages to one person jaywalking, but the more students who cross over the median, the larger the impact becomes. This impact could be related to safety: it is generally safer to cross at the crosswalks where cars are required to stop, or aesthetics: too many people walking over the plants on the median will cause them to eventually die.

Introducing moral character complicates this situation even more. Is it really that moral to use the crosswalk? Is it really that wrong to step on the plants on the median?  Suddenly the decision to save a few seconds has turned from a choice of convenience to a decision of morals.

And, of course, to add in rationalizations: “I don’t have to use the crosswalk because I’m running late” or “I don’t have to use the crosswalk because it’s too cold outside to walk any farther” or “no one’s driving down this road, so I don’t have to use the crosswalk.”

I have told myself these many times while crossing N. Cascade. In the end, I think the Shopping Cart Theory, and my thoughts in comparing it to the CC crosswalks, result in encouraging people to think about the impact of their actions, despite the seemingly invisible immediate effects of a choice.

Remember, the phrase “it’s only a few minutes of your life” can work both for and against you.

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