Does Eating Organic Food Actually Make You a Haughty Jerk?
May 17, 2012 7 Comments
We humans like to engage in something called “moral licensing.” Like a child who earns the right to stay up late after acing a test, we tend to follow up a moral act by giving ourselves greater leeway to do something amoral. And it’s not just following big things like large charitable donations or tough volunteer work. A new study by Kendall Eskine of Loyola University finds we engage in moral licensing when the moral action is something as simple as eating organic food.
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.
Before the hippie-bashing, anti-eco-health factions out there start claiming that organic food makes you selfish, it’s worth pointing out that for people of a certain ideology, affirming your moral identity by “buying American” or protesting an abortion clinic might lead to a similar decrease in altruism.
Partisan sniping aside, the study is interesting because it shows the relative unimportance of certain things that influence our moral identity. If, as moral licensing research implies, we alter our behavior to remain at the same general level of morality, it means each new moral act could be crowding out the need to perform a different moral act. For example, if you decide to start volunteering at the homeless shelter, you can now maintain your moral identity without having to make your annual donation to the food bank.
Given these circumstances it’s extremely important that an action’s effect on a person’s moral identity properly correspond to the action’s effect on society. We don’t want somebody deciding to not write a $10,000 check to a homeless shelter because they feel “moral enough” from shopping at Whole Foods. That’s an extreme example, but I think the fact that organic food can influence moral decisions means our mental accounting in this area isn’t great, and therefore the magnitude with which an action affirms our moral identity probably does not perfectly correspond to what that action means for society. Obviously a lot more research needs to be done, but it’s conceivable that relatively meaningless moral acts (e.g. buying organic) could be crowding out more meaningful moral acts (e.g. important volunteer work.)
Eskine, K. (2012). Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612447114