Carts vs. Baskets: The Great Grocery-Store Debate

Does choosing a cart over a basket mean you’ll buy less and eat healthier?

Opt for a cart, rather than a basket, and you might make healthier choices—so says science.

Opt for a cart, rather than a basket, and you might make healthier choices—or so says science.

Ho boy. So some European researchers who believe in something called “embodied cognition” decided to study whether how you hold your arms when you grocery-shop influences the healthfulness of your purchases. And guess what? It totally, totally does—or so they say. According to their theory of “embodied cognition,” over the course of your lifetime, you learn to associate certain body positions with certain ideas.

When you shop carrying one of those plastic baskets, your arms are flexed. When you push a shopping cart, your arms are extended. The scientists say that we’ve all learned that flexed arms are related to an “approach pleasure” instinct to pull good things toward us. And extended arms are related in our minds to the “avoid pain” approach, in which we stave off undesirable things. Ergo, when you shop with a grocery basket, you’re more likely to put in foods that are bad for you, lovingly drawing those boxes of cookies and cartons of ice cream toward you because of the “preference for immediate gratification” your arm position engenders. Whereas when you shop with a cart, you’re forearmed, so to speak, and more able to ward away the evil Pecan Sandies and Herr’s chips. In their study, the researchers showed that those shopping with baskets did indeed fill them with more verboten goodies than those with carts.

Um. Guys? (And the researchers were three guys.) You don’t think it might not be so much “embodied cognition” ruling our purchases as the fact that we’re more likely to grab a basket than a cart when we’re hot and tired and running from work to home an hour late for dinner and only in need of a few things? And that swelter, lack of energy, and lack of time might incline us to reward ourselves with store-fried chicken and those Sandies instead of loading up on Brussels sprouts and brown rice? Sheesh.

Oh, one more thing. The influence of “embodied cognition” only held among subjects with sensitive Behavioral Approach Systems toward tasty foods—those who didn’t “equate hamburgers with computer paper,” as the authors put it. Maybe we’ll meet one of those subjects someday.