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Vendors offer organically grown produce at the Union Square farmers market in New York City.
Renate Raymond has encountered her fair share of organic food snobs, but a recent trip to a Seattle market left her feeling like she'd stumbled onto the set of "Portlandia."
"I stopped at a market to get a fruit platter for a movie night with friends but I couldn't find one so I asked the produce guy," says the 40-year-old arts administrator from Seattle. "And he was like, 'If you want fruit platters, go to Safeway. We're organic.' I finally bought a small cake and some strawberries and then at the check stand, the guy was like 'You didn't bring your own bag? I need to charge you if you didn't bring your own bag.' It was like a 'Portlandia skit.' They were so snotty and arrogant."
As it turns out, new research has determined that a judgmental attitude may just go hand in hand with exposure to organic foods. In fact, a new study published this week in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, has found that organic food may just make people act a bit like jerks.
"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," says author Kendall Eskine, assistant professor of the department of psychological sciences at Loyola University in New Orleans. "I've noticed a lot of organic foods are marketed with moral terminology, like Honest Tea, and wondered if you exposed people to organic food, if it would make them pat themselves on the back for their moral and environmental choices. I wondered if they would be more altruistic or not."
To find out, Eskine and his team divided 60 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.
"One vignette was about second cousins having sex," says Eskine. "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.
The results did not bode well for the organic folks.
"We found that the organic people judged much harder compared to the control or comfort food groups," says Eskine. "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).
"There's something about being exposed to organic food that made them feel better about themselves," says Eskine. "And that made them kind of jerks a little bit, I guess."
Why does eating better make us act worse? Eskine says it probably has to do with what he calls "moral licensing."
"People may feel like they've done their good deed," he says. "That they have permission, or license, to act unethically later on. It's like when you go to the gym and run a few miles and you feel good about yourself, so you eat a candy bar."
Eskine says he was surprised by the findings ("You'd think eating organic would make you feel elevated and want to pay it forward," he says) and hopes to do additional studies that look at conditions that might prompt people to act differently.
Until then, organic eaters may want to rein in those self-righteous stink-eyes.
"At my local grocery, I sometimes catch organic eyes gazing into my grocery cart and scowling," says Sue Frause, a 61-year-old freelance writer/photographer from Whidbey Island. "So I'll often toss in really bad foods just to get them even more riled up."
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