Do you like to pontificate about organic food, your CSA and the evils of big ag? Then you may feel morally superior to others; you may be a jerk.
Continuing with Dr. Oz-inspired themes of insufferability and sanctimony, a new study confirms what I’ve anecdotally observed for decades: preaching organic makes you a jerk – and not in the adorable Steve Martin way, more in the self-perceived moral superiority way.
A paper published last week in the Journal of Social Psychological & Personality Science found that exposure to organic foods can “harshen moral judgments.”
As cited by Time magazine, “There’s a line of research showing that when people can pat themselves on the back for their moral behavior, they can become self-righteous,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Kendall J. Eskine, assistant professor of the psychological sciences department at Loyola University in New Orleans, told NBC’s Today show. Eskine and his team showed research subjects photographs of food, ranging from überorganic fruits and vegetables to fattening brownies and baked goods. He then gauged the primed eaters’ moral fiber with stories that warranted judgment, like one about a lawyer who lurks in an ER to try to persuade patients to sue for their injuries.
Reacting to the events on a numbered scale, the organic-food participants were more judgmental than those in the comfort-food category. They were also more reluctant when asked to volunteer time to help strangers, the study found, offering only 13 minutes vs. the brownie eaters’ 24 minutes. It’s like the group had already fulfilled its moral-justice quota by buying organic, so it felt all right slacking off in other ethics-based situations. Eskine labeled it “moral licensing.”
“There’s something about being exposed to organic food that made them feel better about themselves,” he told the Today show. “And that made them kind of jerks a little bit, I guess.”
The research doesn’t mean much, and I’m probably citing it only because it confirms my worldview, but still, there are a lot of preachers out there.
I’ll stick to focusing on food that makes people barf: organic, sustainable, local, dolphin-friendly or otherwise.
The abstract is below:
Wholesome foods and wholesome morals? Organic foods reduce prosocial behavior and harshen moral judgments
Social Psychological and Personality Science
Kendall J. Eskine
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.