Buying organic doesn’t make you better than me
There was a recent study published here which described how people who viewed organic foods with annoyingly self-righteous names actually behave more selfishly than people who viewed “comfort food” or other, bland categories of food. The abstract:
Recent research has revealed that specific tastes can influence moral processing, with sweet tastes inducing prosocial behavior and disgusting tastes harshening moral judgments. Do similar effects apply to different food types (comfort foods, organic foods, etc.)? Although organic foods are often marketed with moral terms (e.g., Honest Tea, Purity Life, and Smart Balance), no research to date has investigated the extent to which exposure to organic foods influences moral judgments or behavior. After viewing a few organic foods, comfort foods, or control foods, participants who were exposed to organic foods volunteered significantly less time to help a needy stranger, and they judged moral transgressions significantly harsher than those who viewed nonorganic foods. These results suggest that exposure to organic foods may lead people to affirm their moral identities, which attenuates their desire to be altruistic.
I read the original study (and also a hilarious post riffing on it from jezebel.com), and found it interesting that the experimenters at least claimed to be unsure of the outcome of the study in advance (although they did cite another study in which people were more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing “green” products).
Specifically, they thought one of two things could happen: that the sense of elevation cause by staring at the organic labels could make them feel like part of a larger community and therefore more willing to volunteer, or else the “moral piggybacking” on a perceived good deed (i.e. organic food is good for the environment) would make them feel like they’d already done enough, and be less likely to be nice. It turns out the latter.
[As an aside, another study cited was one in which people assumed there were fewer calories in chocolate which was described as “fair trade”, which explains something to me about why those kinds of labels are so popular and also so ripe for fraud.]
The results of this study resonates with me: ever since Whole Foods opened I’ve had the impression that the people shopping there thought they’d done enough for the world simply by paying too much for produce and not being able to buy Cheerios (a pet peeve of mine). Haven’t you noticed how rude Whole Foods shoppers are? I’d rather be in a Stop and Shop check-out line any day.
In other words, I’m going through a major case of confirmation bias here. I’ve been a huge skeptic about the organic food movement since it began when I was in college at Berkeley. I’ve challenged a whole bunch of my friends on this (yes I’m an asshole) and I’ve noticed there are essentially two camps. One camp defends organic as good for the environment, the other camp defends organic as more nutritious.
For the environmentalists, my argument is that local produce is better than California organic produce, given that it’s been shipped across the country. It seems silly to me to be able to purchase organic blueberries imported from somewhere instead of locally grown blueberries. In fact I’m not sure where there’s good evidence that organic, locally grown produce is better for the environment than just locally grown produce.
The other camp defends organic as more nutritious, but that really drives me completely nuts, because if you flip that around the message is that we can let the poor people eat the toxic vegetables while we rich people eat the healthy stuff. It’s crazy! If there really is toxicity in our standard produce, then this is a huge problem for the country and we need to address it directly, rather than making a certain class of very expensive food.