Do you return your shopping cart? A psychologist's answer on TikTok enraged thousands

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 14: Shoppers visit Vons at 4030 S Centinela Ave on Friday, Oct. 14, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. Kroger, that parent company of Ralphs, plans to buy Albertsons, parent company of Vons, in a deal valued at $24.6 billion, a merger that would combine the two largest grocery-store chains in the U.S. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Shoppers visit a Vons in Mar Vista, Los Angeles, in 2022. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Of all the decisions faced during a trip to the grocery store — paper, plastic or reusable bags? self-checkout or human interaction? — one has emerged as the most contentious.

Where do you leave your cart at the end of the shopping trip? It's become a cart conundrum of sorts.

Leslie Dobson, a Los Angeles-based clinical and forensic psychologist, shared her answer in a video posted on TikTok and Instagram last week that's generated more than 11 million views as of Monday and a whole litany of backlash.

"I'm not returning my shopping cart and you can judge me all you want. I'm not getting my groceries into the car, getting my children into the car and then leaving them in the car to go return the cart. So if you're going to give me a dirty look, f— off," Dobson said using an expletive.

The internet went off.

People accused her of being an "entitled mom" and called her "lazy." Others called her a "Karen" and some questioned why she doesn't take her kids with her to return the cart or lock the car with them inside while she puts the cart away.

"Oof this is embarrassing for you," a mother of two wrote on Instagram. "It's said that returning the cart is a litmus test of sorts, and girlie, you failed..."

Read more: Column: What would banning TikTok accomplish? Answer: Virtually nothing

But Dobson said the video didn't tell the whole story. She explained in an interview with The Times that she doesn't believe women should be shamed into returning their shopping carts if they don't feel the parking lot is safe for them or their children.

Dobson, who has children ages 3 and 7, said she knew the video would be provocative, but she didn't expect the wave of anger and judgment from people online. She's even received death threats, she said.

She hoped the initial post — and a follow-up video the next day — would get people talking about women prioritizing their own safety. She said her goal was to impart that women should not feel forced into an unsafe situation for themselves or their children to return a shopping cart.

"If you feel unsafe, the important thing is to trust your intuition and protect yourself and your loved ones versus a societal norm or a judgment that may come your way," she told The Times.

But people were downright apoplectic about the idea of Dobson leaving her cart unrestrained.

Several commenters on her video made reference to the "shopping cart theory," which proposes that a person's moral character and ability to self-govern can be determined by whether they return their shopping cart to its designated area or abandon it somewhere else in the parking lot.

Some online jumped to her defense, saying that by returning the buggies or leaving them in a designated corral they're taking jobs away from those tasked with bringing the carts back into the store.

The public response to the first video was so intense that Dobson followed up with another post on Friday to give some additional context about why she made the video.

"I want to give you some statistics," she said in the video. "Last year, 265 children were abducted in parking lots in America. Half of those were sexually assaulted. As a single mom returning your shopping cart you are prime for a predator to watch and grab you."

The nonprofit Kids and Car Safety reported that in the United States in 2022 at least 265 children were abducted during car thefts — the highest number in the 10 years of data collection provided on its website. In such circumstances, the person often doesn't realize a child is inside the vehicle when they drive off, according to the nonprofit.

Read more: Man arrested in theft of car with 4-year-old boy inside in Long Beach, triggering Amber Alert

The statistics provided by the nonprofit don't specify whether any children were sexually assaulted in such situations. The nonprofit Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reported that in 2016, Child Protective Services agencies found evidence that more than 57,000 children were victims of sexual abuse. But the majority of sexual abuse reported to law enforcement was committed by an acquaintance of the child or a family member, according to the nonprofit.

"It may not be hundreds of thousands of trafficked women or stolen cars, but I don't care," Dobson told The Times. "For me, if it's even one that we could have prevented why not? Over a shopping cart?"

Shopping cart shaming has been an online pastime for years.

The Instagram account "Cart Narcs" devotes itself to confronting people on video in parking lots across the country to call them out for failing to return their carts. Those who decline to trek their carts back to the corral run the risk of having a Cart Narc leave a magnet on their vehicle that reads "I don't return my shopping cart like a jerk."

Aside from times when she feels unsafe, does Dobson return her shopping cart?

"Always," she said with a laugh. "And I help others return their carts."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.