Most of the meat-eaters among us have interacted with annoying, judgmental vegetarians. A recent psychological experiment has suggested that an association with organic food does indeed engender feelings of self-righteousness. Will an awareness of that human tendency help keep a healthy diet from making you act like a food snob?
Human nature and food
Psychological studies have shown that when people make good moral personal choices, they tend to feel superior over others. Kendall Eskine, an assistant psychology professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, designed a study to find out how those tendencies may apply to healthy food choices.
In a recent appearance on NBC’s Today Show, Eskine said he got the idea for his study by seeing ads for organic food marketed with moral terminology. If people pat themselves on the back for choosing organic food, he wondered, would that make them more inclined to altrusim? Not exactly, it turns out.
Testing moral judgment
In his experiment, Eskine divided 60 volunteers into three groups. One group viewed images of fruits and vegetables with organic labels. Another group looked at desserts like brownies, cookies and ice cream. The third group saw bland foods like rice and beans.
To measure their moral judgment, participants were asked to determine the acceptability of questionable moral activities, including incest, eating a dead dog, having sex with a cousin and ambulance-chasing lawyers. Finally, they were asked if they were willing to volunteer more time to participate in another professor’s research.
Organics inspire selfish behavior
Eskine found that the volunteers exposed to images of organic food judged the morally questionable activities much more harshly. He also found that the organic group was the least likely to help the other professor with his research. The people viewing the desserts were nicer, were willing to volunteer the most time and judged the moral scenarios most leniently.
Eskine told the Today Show he was surprised by his findings. He said in previous studies people who ate sweet foods were more altruistic. “You’d think eating organic would make you feel elevated and want to pay it forward,” he said. He offered an explanation for such selfish behavior: a phenomenon psychologists call “moral licensing,” according to Eskine. Moral licensing occurs when people regard performing a good deed as money in the bank that can be spent acting like a jerk later on.
Don’t be a food snob
A psychologist writing in “Scientific American” had a different take on Eskine’s study: eating sweet, fatty foods like ice cream and cookies made the volunteers feel guilty. Perhaps altruism helped assuage those feelings of guilt.
The danger of self-righteousness is certainly no reason to choose a cheeseburger over a salad. A healthy diet is tremendously positive for your body as well as your mind. But don’t let hubris shrink your heart.