Bite Sized Science: Does Organic Food make you antisocial?

By Keir Liddle

A recent paper, published in the journal of Social Psychology and Personality, has suggested that exposure to organic food may reduce prosocial behavior and harshen moral judgements.

The paper, authored by Kendall J. Eskine, builds on previous research that suggests that specific tastes can influence moral processing, with sweet tastes inducing prosocial behavior and disgusting tastes harshening moral judgements but looking specifically at organic food. Organic Food is often marketed with moral terms (e.g., Honest Tea, Purity Life, and Smart Balance) and it is these that is thought to promote feelings of self righteousness in individuals that lead them to be less pro-social.

The papers abstract states:

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.

The study was divided into two phases. In one phase Eskine and his team divided 60 (Loyola University undergraduates) people into three groups. One group was shown pictures of clearly labeled organic food, like apples and spinach. Another group was shown comfort foods such as brownies and cookies. And a third group (the controls) were shown non-organic, non-comfort foods like rice, mustard and oatmeal. After viewing the pictures, each person was then asked to read a series of vignettes describing moral transgressions. Erskine describes the vignettes thusly:

“One vignette was about second cousins having sex, another was about a lawyer on the prowl in an ER trying to get people to sue for their injuries. 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. Erskine states that they found:

“We found that the organic people judged much harder compared to the control or comfort food groups, on a scale of 1 to 7, the organic people were like 5.5 while the controls were about a 5 and the comfort food people were like a 4.89. When it came to helping out a needy stranger, the organic people also proved to be more selfish, volunteering only 13 minutes as compared to 19 minutes (for controls) and 24 minutes (for comfort food folks).”

These results seem to indicate that organic food may impact on peoples pro-social behaviour perhaps due to the effects of “moral licensing” where people have down there good deed (eaten organic food) and feel they have permission to act less pro socially and make harsher moral judgements later on.

 “There’s something about being exposed to organic food that made them feel better about themselves and that made them kind of jerks a little bit, I guess.”

The conclusions of the study may be oversold in the reporting to the media and it is important to remember that this is a lab based study so how much of this translates to the real world requires more research. It will be interesting to see if the findings are soon refuted or supported by replication of wider research.

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0 Responses to Bite Sized Science: Does Organic Food make you antisocial?

  1. Python says:

    I’ve not followed through and looked this paper up, but …

    The comparisons they have apparently made are groups viewing 1) fruit and vegetables (labelled organic) 2) comfort foods 3) more “neutral” foods

    I don’t think their conclusions can say anything about organically labelled foods! I’d like to see them repeat their study minus the “organic” labels and see if there is any difference in their results …. It may just as easily be a finding about the state of mind that thinking about fruit and veg puts people into!

  2. It would be interesting yes and a fairly obvious confound. Perhaps organic chocolates or comparing organic versus non organic fruit and veg would be an Interesting follow up for the researchers to consider?

  3. Gary says:

    Reading about bad science certainly makes me feel more self-righteous and uncharitable. If these were students I hope they got an F. As Python mentioned, the comparison of organic vs non-organic would have made more sense. How did they decide that mustard is “neutral? What about meat, fish, worms? How many people were in each group? With these small numbers, are their statistics even significant? Just a couple of very nice or very mean people in a group would have shifted the score.

    In case any one is wondering, I’m not into “organic” foods, so I’m not being defensive about it. I just can’t swallow this swill.

  4. Alex Wassall says:

    Another question might be, if “Organic Food is often marketed with moral terms (e.g., Honest Tea, Purity Life, and Smart Balance)” and the Organic option used in the study consisted of “clearly labeled organic food” did that clear labeling include Moral terms.

    If so it is possible that the moral terms in the labeling have more of an affect than the origin of the food

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