Do Organic Eaters Look Down on Others?

June 8th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

One new study says organic buyers judge others more harshly.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

There’s no arguing that the food industry has learned that consumers will happily buy products that make them feel just a little bit better about themselves. As one MSNBC story pointed out, labels like Honest Tea, Purity life and Smart Balance are no mistake; buying them can make you feel just a little more like you’ve done your part for your body and the world. But, as Kendall Eskine, assistant professor of the department of psychological sciences at Loyola University wondered, is that righteous feeling likely to make organic buyers more altruistic in general – or does it end at the checkout counter?

What he found was surprising. In fact, the results of his new study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, show that organic eaters may look down on others, be less likely to help in an emergency and be outspoken about expressing derision.

The researchers divided 60 people into three groups. One group was shown images of organic foods like spinach and apples; another was shown comfort foods like brownies and cookies; and the third looked at basic, non-comfort foods such as rice, mustard and oatmeal. After viewing the pictures, each person was asked to read a series of vignettes describing moral transgressions. "One vignette was about a lawyer on the prowl in an ER trying to get people to sue for their injuries,” Eskine told MSNBC. “Then the groups made moral judgments on a scale from one to seven." In another phase of the study, the three groups were asked to volunteer for a fictitious study, with each person writing down the amount of time -- from zero to 30 minutes -- that they would be willing to volunteer.

On average, the organic food crowd judged the vignettes most harshly and was stingiest with its volunteering time. In general, the comfort food folks were less likely to judge and more likely to help. Or as Jezebel blogger Doug Berry puts it, “Surprise, surprise – the people who’d been shown pictures of organic foods were consistently more judgmental and less willing to take time from their lentil burger grill-outs to volunteer.”

Eskine explained the results this way: Though you’d think eating organic would make you “feel more elevated and want to pay it forward,” in fact, the negative results probably have to do with what he calls “moral licensing.”

“People may feel like they’ve done their good deed,” he says. And that makes them feel like they have license to act unethically later on – something he compares to going to the gym to run a few miles and later eating a candy bar. “There’s something about being exposed to organic food that made them feel better about themselves,” Eskine says.

Does buying organic make you smug – or would you disagree with the results of this study? Weigh in.