Shopping Carts, Dopamine, Monkey-See-Monkey-No-Do

by Charles Lyell on July 4, 2011

“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by anyone, but coaxed downstairs, a step at a time.”    – Mark Twain

The shopping cart was invented in 1937 by Sylvan Goldman. Mr. Goldman owned a supermarket chain and he was looking to increase sales by making it easier for customers to carry more groceries up to the cash registers.

His newly patented “folding basket carriers” (Exhibit A) went over like lead balloons. Instead of greeting the carriers with open arms, men and women offered up all sorts of rationalizations to explain why they were not interested in giving the carts a shot. Goldman knew he had a problem but he didn’t know that he was dealing with safety, peer-approval and esteem addicts who were slaves to dopamine-induced fears.

Keep in mind, they weren’t being asked to check out what it felt like to stick their fingers into a meat grinder. What we have here is an example of how easily threatened some addicts are and why most people grow increasingly resistant, defensive, offensive, and even violent when the perceived threat level shoots from benign to overwhelming.

The shoppers’ irrational avoidance behavior provides an important insight into a dopamine-induced fear that continues to help primates but harms our species. For example, chimpanzees don’t float and can’t swim, yet few of them drown because their need for peer-approval and esteem keeps them from wading into bodies of water that they see their peers avoiding. This same monkey-see-monkey-no-do trait hurts Homo sapiens by keeping the masses suspicious, paranoid, and unreasonably opposed to anything that they think their peers might oppose — it doesn’t matter if the breakthrough is as harmless as Sylvan Goldman’s folding basket carrier (Exhibit A), as eye-opening as Galileo Galilei’s telescope (Exhibit B), or as mind-boggling as the information contained on this site.

To help his customers overcome their approval and esteem concerns, Mr. Goldman hired men and women of different ages to push carts up and down the supermarkets’ aisles and pretend they were shopping. Rarer, braver, and more open-minded individuals were personally introduced to the shopping carts’ benefits.

Goldman’s ingenuity paid off. On a business level his invention dramatically increased sales. As a bonus, selling the carts to other markets made him a multimillionaire. On a psychological level, his monkey-see-monkey-do approach helped customers work through their irrational fears. On a utilitarian level, the carts made shopping more pleasurable. On a dopamine level, improving the shopping experience increased the customers’ dopamine flow which improved profits and boosted Sylvan Goldman’s dopamine flow.

Mr. Goldman’s story raises a few questions.

Can you imagine being too timid to be the first to try something as simple as pushing a shopping cart because you couldn’t risk peoples’ disapproval?

If you were alive in 1937, do you think you would have been among the first to bravely march up to a shopping cart, check it out, and actually use it? Or are you honest enough to consider the possibility that, with very rare exception, we’re all basically dopamine puppets who are afraid to be the first to check out anything until we see others checking it out?

Are you going to take this opportunity to be among the first, rare, brave, open-minded individuals willing to learn everything you can about dopamine addiction? Or will you continue to let irrational, primitive, dopamine-induced fears make a monkey out of you?


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