Does Organic Food Make You a Judgmental Jerk? Maybe

The caricature of the snooty health nut may have some basis in reality.

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Even among those who don't buy their groceries there, Whole Foods Market has something of an unfortunate nickname: Whole Paycheck. The company's reputation for selling up-market, healthful goods is both its saving grace as well as its curse, and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has struggled to walk the line between defending his brand and accidentally sparking a class war.

"There's a significant portion of the population that doesn't want to keep eating crummy food, and they're willing to pay for it," said Mackey at a conference last year. Left unsaid is the implication that the rest of us sheep will continue to eat slop either because we don't know any better or we can't afford it -- and them's the breaks.

Mackey's apparent self-righteousness may not be a figment of your imagination. According to a study published this month in Social Psychological and Personality Science, people who are exposed to organic foods tend to judge others more harshly.

Kendall Eskine, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola University, says those who are primed to think about healthy organic foods like spinach, apples, and tomatoes are more likely to criticize morally questionable activities. He took 62 Loyola undergrads and divided them up into three groups. One group was given images of fruits and vegetables bearing organic labels; another saw comfort foods like cookies and ice cream; and the third group looked at "neutral" foods such as grains and beans.

All the participants were then polled on the acceptability of certain scenarios, including incest and eating a dead pet. The survey took the form of a seven-point ranking system where 1 meant "perfectly acceptable" and 7 meant "totally unacceptable." Finally, they were asked whether they could spare some additional time to help another professor with a different study.

Those who'd seen images of healthy foods were more likely to rank the morally questionable activities as not okay, and were least likely to say they could give their time to the other professor's study:

"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." The organic people also only offered to volunteer for a mere 13 minutes, as compared with the control group's 19-minute offer and the happy comfort-food group's 24-minute commitment.

Eskine suggests the images of organic food reinforced feelings of moral certitude, making those participants more judgmental than those in the processed-food and control groups. There's been some pushback to this explanation, such as the fact that sugar can make people more altruistic, and that many of the non-organic products Eskine showed were sweet foods. Another possibility is that feelings of guilt associated with eating junk food could be making people more empathetic. Then there's the fact that only a handful of people participated in the study, and all of them were undergraduate students -- not exactly a wide-ranging sample.

Still, Eskine's research raises other interesting questions about the limits of morality regardless. We already know that willpower is a finite resource -- making decisions we don't like actually reduces our ability to make similar decisions later. It'd be fascinating to know if our capacity for morality and sympathy are under the same constraints.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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