Why some organic food enthusiasts act like self-righteous jerks

13 Jun


by TMP EDITOR on MAY 23, 2012

Most of the meat-eaters among us have interacted with annoying, judgmental vegetarians. A recent psychological experiment has suggested that an association with organic food does indeed engender feelings of self-righteousness. Will an awareness of that human tendency help keep a healthy diet from making you act like a food snob?

organic food snobbery

Human nature and food

Psychological studies have shown that when people make good moral personal choices, they tend to feel superior over others. Kendall Eskine, an assistant psychology professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, designed a study to find out how those tendencies may apply to healthy food choices.

In a recent appearance on NBC’s Today Show, Eskine said he got the idea for his study by seeing ads for organic food marketed with moral terminology. If people pat themselves on the back for choosing organic food, he wondered, would that make them more inclined to altrusim? Not exactly, it turns out.

Testing moral judgment

In his experiment, Eskine divided 60 volunteers into three groups. One group viewed images of fruits and vegetables with organic labels. Another group looked at desserts like brownies, cookies and ice cream. The third group saw bland foods like rice and beans.

To measure their moral judgment, participants were asked to determine the acceptability of questionable moral activities, including incest, eating a dead dog, having sex with a cousin and ambulance-chasing lawyers. Finally, they were asked if they were willing to volunteer more time to participate in another professor’s research.

Organics inspire selfish behavior

Eskine found that the volunteers exposed to images of organic food judged the morally questionable activities much more harshly. He also found that the organic group was the least likely to help the other professor with his research. The people viewing the desserts were nicer, were willing to volunteer the most time and judged the moral scenarios most leniently.

Moral licensing

Eskine told the Today Show he was surprised by his findings. He said in previous studies people who ate sweet foods were more altruistic. “You’d think eating organic would make you feel elevated and want to pay it forward,” he said. He offered an explanation for such selfish behavior: a phenomenon psychologists call “moral licensing,” according to Eskine. Moral licensing occurs when people regard performing a good deed as money in the bank that can be spent acting like a jerk later on.

Don’t be a food snob

A psychologist writing in “Scientific American” had a different take on Eskine’s study: eating sweet, fatty foods like ice cream and cookies made the volunteers feel guilty. Perhaps altruism helped assuage those feelings of guilt.

The danger of self-righteousness is certainly no reason to choose a cheeseburger over a salad. A healthy diet is tremendously positive for your body as well as your mind. But don’t let hubris shrink your heart.

Source: New York Daily NewsOne Green PlanetScientific American 



May 23, 2012 at 4:01 pm

“is it maybe the exact opposite, perhaps; that some selfish, moralistic, self-righteous prigs seek out organic food to show how ‘good’ they are, to themselves and others? ”

Admittedly, it sounds like a pretty bad study. Assuming the statistics are significant, they may have shown that viewing fruits and vegetables makes people more judgmental. Perhaps simply because the pleasure centres in your brain have activated from seeing a cookie but not spinach. This residual good feeling causes one to judge others less harshly. (Which I think is how things seem to work… People ask themselves how they feel about something, but they have trouble isolating what causes them to feel that way. So if something else makes them feel good, it contaminates the picture. A classic example is a study where people were phoned up on sunny days and rainy days and asked to judge their overall life satisfaction on a scale from 1-10. On rainy days, they averages 7 or so and on sunny days it was 9 or so.)

But the study design seems to be conducted to show that organic foods lead to judgement. If the only thing going on was self-righteous types gravitating towards organic food, then this study should not have shown any significance. People were randomly assigned to one of the groups, so their inherent judgmentalism should have been equal. Then they viewed pictures, then they made moral judgments. The only difference between the groups was the pictures they viewed, so presumably the picture viewing caused the different moral attitudes. (Of course, with only 20 subjects per group, there may have been some pre-existing differences between the groups)







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