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Wholesome food and wholesome morals: does seeing organic make you act like jerk?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but an apple? Well it may be more than just an apple. Is it normal? Local? Organic? Is that piece of cheese low fat, is the coffee fair trade?

Psychologists have known of a “health halo”, centered around foods thought to be “healthy”, whether or not they actually are (like low fat yogurt, which may be low fat, but is often high in sugar). There is also a “health halo” around foods that are organic. People think organic foods are lower in fat and lower calorie than foods without the organic label.


(Source)

And it turns out that there might be another kind of halo around organic food: a moral one. But not the kind that makes you want to adopt a puppy.

Eskine, KJ. “Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments” Social Psychology and Personality Science, 2012.

This study received a lot of coverage in the media (and on the blogs!). And it’s not hard to see why. Organic food is a massive seller, and many people have lots of reasons to love it or think it’s not all that.

But the question for this study is this: does organic food make you a better person? Does it make you more likely to help someone out or judge someone less harshly?

To look at this, the author of the study recruited 62 undergrads and divided them into three groups. One group saw images of organic foods: spinach, apples, tomatoes, and carrots. The second saw “comfort” foods: ice cream, cookies, chocolate, and brownies. And the third say neutral foods: unlabeled mustard, oatmeal, rice, and beans.


(Fig. 1. I’m hungry now)

After ranking the foods for “desirability” (to cover the real point of the test), the author handed them another packet with a series of questionable moral scenarios. These were things like consensual cousin sex, lawyers trolling ERs for lawsuits, and a guy eating his already dead dog. Eskine (the author of the study), asked them to rate the morality of the deeds on a scale of 1 (totally ok) to 7 (totally NOT ok). Last of all, the students were told another prof in the department needed volunteers for a study…how much time could they spare?

What Eskine found was that after viewing organic food pictures, students rated moral transgressions (like humping your cousin) as being worse than students who saw the normal or comfort foods. They also said they could volunteer significantly less time for the other prof’s experiment (what psychologists call reduced prosocial behavior). The results persisted no matter what the students thought of the desirability of the food. Seeing the organic food made people less nice, not nicer. The people viewing the junk food, on the other hand, were nicer, volunteering the most time and judging people the least.

Eskine concluded that the people who saw the organic foods felt confirmed in their moral identities (in other words, they were self-satisfied), which made them less likely to help others. I think this could definitely be the case, but I also wonder if there’s an alternate explanation.

You see, in previous studies (which Eskine cited), people who ate sweet foods were afterward more sweet tempered, they had higher ranking of altruism. And all of the ‘comfort’ foods seen here…were sweet. This might mean that people would be more likely to be altruistic anyway. It makes me wonder how the rankings in this study might compare to if people viewed other comfort foods that weren’t sweet, like chips or chicken soup or tater tots?

And while what’s being studied here is the organic food and the effect it had, I can’t help but wonder about the other end, the comfort food, the ‘bad’ food. Is it that organic food makes people less altruistic, or does comfort food make them moreso? Why does it make them volunteer more? I personally wonder if it had anything to do with guilt. These are college students. Half of them are female. If they are anything like most of the women I meet every day, seeing, and wanting ice cream will induce immediate feelings of guilt. This is food that has been hammered into our heads, not as comfort food, but as a sin. So I wonder if the comfort food makes people feel guilty, and thus makes them feel like they need moral penance. Alternatively, it could be the very healthfulness of the organic foods presented (note that they were all vegetables and fruits, no organic yogurt or ice cream or steak) that was making people feel self-righteous. I wonder how the organic versions and the subsequent moral judgements would compare against non-organic versions of those same foods.

But the next time you buy organic and are feeling a little self-righteous, you might want to watch your moral halo. Instead of making you more likely to help others, it might make you the subject of a Portlandia skit.

Eskine, K. (2012). Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612447114

Scicurious About the Author: Scicurious is a PhD in Physiology, and is currently a postdoc in biomedical research. She loves the brain. And so should you. Follow on Twitter @Scicurious.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. JamesDavis 8:26 am 05/21/2012

    Okay, when you get the answer…get back to us.

    Link to this
  2. 2. S.E. Gould (labrat) 8:56 am 05/21/2012

    The first explanation that sprung to my mind was that the dominant feeling when looking at sweet, unhealthy foods would not be guilt as much as it would be *happiness*. They are called ‘comfort-foods’ for a reason, it wouldn’t surprise me that people feel calmer, happier and better disposed towards the world in general after eating a chocolate bar than they do after eating an apple. More dopamine is released with the comfort food, and people associate them with positive feelings and happier moods, even if they feel they “shouldn’t” be eating them.

    Link to this
  3. 3. GG 9:51 am 05/21/2012

    These seem to be very poorly designed and executed experiments.

    IMHO, all the participants should have gotten exactly the same food (say, some kind of gello), but having different types of labels. Since the “halo effect” is totally psychological, the packaging’s message should be the trigger for behavior, not the icecream. BTW, icecream and chocolate can be organic too…

    Link to this
  4. 4. curmudgeon 9:52 am 05/21/2012

    Moral High Ground Syndrome? Nothing new about that. Today it’s organic food (and when did you ever meet a benign vegetarian come to that?). In the past it’s been all kinds of things. Truth is nothing makes human beings more self-content and more vile to others than a sense of superiority no matter how dumb the difference maker is. You only have to look at evangelical Christians to know that (and at the parable of the unforgiving servant to know that the early church was well aware of the danger!)

    Link to this
  5. 5. jtdwyer 11:07 am 05/21/2012

    What nonsense! Viewing pictures of food products causes undergraduate students to think differently about – anything? There’s far too much mustard on this social ‘science’!

    Link to this
  6. 6. Mark5146546 12:02 pm 05/21/2012

    If anyone tries to watch the little Portlandia skit video from outside the US and gets a message something like >>not available in your country<<, this is called Geoblocking and has become something of a fad. It is used to slightly reduce server usage.

    However, it is a threat to civilization, once civilizations are all about the flows of high culture and the decline of civilizations, about the stagnation of such flows. Also, it undermines the very purpose of the internet, which is to help build a vibrant, cosmopolitan world culture.

    The way around provincial, miserly, abusive Geoblocking is by using proxy servers, which is perfectly and entirely legal.

    Try or browse in or . The easiest to use for nongeeks is the former. If you do, use the firewall setting: Enable: openvpn.exe, openvpnas.exe, openvpntray.exe (useful kernel); Block: hsssrv.exe, hsswd.exe (annoying adware).

    Link to this
  7. 7. Mark5146546 12:04 pm 05/21/2012

    That is, Try hotspotshield.com or browse in torproject.org or proxy.org.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Mark5146546 12:06 pm 05/21/2012

    Try hotspotshield.com or browse in torproject.org or proxy.org.

    The easiest to use for nongeeks is the former. If you do, use the firewall setting: Enable: openvpn.exe, openvpnas.exe, openvpntray.exe (useful kernel); Block: hsssrv.exe, hsswd.exe (annoying adware).

    Link to this
  9. 9. ch_wesselingh 4:52 pm 05/22/2012

    organic may make people more aware of taking care of themselves. one of those ways may be not over comiting time or need for time out. which may make them more responcabile to themselves and their own needs. were as a lot of other people first before their own needs.

    Link to this
  10. 10. bucketofsquid 5:38 pm 05/22/2012

    I second the comment by GG. If the experiment is to measure the impact of the “organic” label then the test should have used the same item with 3 versions, 1 labelled organic, one without a label and the third with a label that indicates commercial/industrial farming.

    Just a side note: Organic actually means that the subject of the term contains an oxygen atom. It is only recently that the ignorant have begun misusing the term organic to mean grown without the use of chemically produced fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. In the last couple of years people have added in the criteria for animals that they not be given preventive antibiotics.

    This is a pretty silly mindset anyway. The incident of intestinal worms dropped dramatically when we changed from poop as a fertilizer to a chemical fertilizer. The only real thing to worry about is if a food product was grown, raised or otherwise produced using chemicals that are dangerous to your health.

    Chemicals that aren’t dangerous, such as potassium nitrate, which is dug up rather than made in vats, should not be a cause for fear. Never the less, even safe chemicals can be dangerous in excessive amounts just like that high fructose corn syrup that you find in every kind of food.

    I started reading labels when I developed heart disease. Why on earth do major manufacturers of salsa (think Pace) and beef jerky or blueberries have high fructose corn syrup as one of the top ingredients? High fructose corn syrup in moderate amounts is harmless. Sucking down a pound of it every day because it is added to almost everything you eat will eventually give you type 2 diabetes or out right kill you.

    Even some “organic” foods have this high fructose corn syrup added as long as the corn was “organic”. Don’t even get me started on the foods labelled healthy that include known causes of heart disease or cancer.

    Link to this

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