What image does that name conjure up? Is it your uncle Joe, who lives in a mansion, complete with a large staff to serve his every whim while never saying 'thank you'? Perhaps your sister’s boyfriend who drives the Bugatti Veyron and talks about it to anyone who will listen? Maybe a friend of a friend who dons expensive, exclusive designer clothing to go to the grocery? Or perhaps it's your neighbor who buys and eats organic food.
A new and very provocative study, Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments, by Dr. Kendall J. Eskine from Loyola University New Orleans, indicates that buying and consuming organic foods can actually induce self righteous and selfish behavior. In other words, it can make you a jerk.
What influences someone to go organic? Organic food costs more than conventionally grown foods, so why pay more? Some controversial reasons that are often given:
*It's smart. It may cost more initially to purchase organic, free range and natural foods, but everyone knows it’s the “in thing," so smart people who keep up with the times want to be part of it.
*It's healthy. Toxins that are in pesticides must affect your health, right? So, it makes sense if you don't eat the treated produce, you don't eat the pesticides, thus improving your health.
*It’s green. Organic farmers do not use conventional methods. Chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and hormones are short term treatments that hurt the earth in the long run. So, when you buy organic, you're doing your part to “save the planet”.
It's should be all good, right? Not at all, and here’s why. When folks start shopping and eating organic, a self-righteous change begins. In other words, they become snobs. They look down on those with the processed food, the frozen dinners and even those who do not bring their own reusable bag and become downright judgmental. (Check out this 6 minute satirical clip from Portlandia). And even more importantly, their self importance and harsh judgment was not just food related; it carried over to other areas of their life, as well.
The study divided 60 people into three groups. Group 1 was shown organic produce; Group 2 was shown comfort foods like cakes and cookies, and Group 3 was shown non-organic, non-comfort foods, like rice and oatmeal. Then they were given scenarios of minor moral transgressions and asked to comment. The results: Those in Group 1 (the organic food group) judged much harsher than the other two groups. Group 1 was also less likely to help a stranger in need and they were more selfish with their time.
Organic shoppers say they feel good about themselves. Yet, while their bodies may be benefitting from a healthy lifestyle, their brains are not faring as well. They may be purchasing goods with moral names like Honest Tea, Purity Life, Back to Nature, Born Free, Earth Balance and Prince of Peace, but they are being seduced by a sense of moral superiority, and pass judgment on others with a narcissistic and self focused aura.
Is this what happens when you feel better because you're contributing to the good of Mother Earth? Yes, I call it the “moral superiority syndrome” and you see it in fashion statements (just say no to fur), cars (hybrid, of course), workout regimes (bikram yoga) and religious cults. Wow, who would have thought the behavior of an organic shopper was comparable to that of a cult member?
So the next time you consider buying organic, do so if you think it’s good for you. But keep the attitude in check -- you’re not necessarily better, smarter, morally superior or making more of a difference in the world than your McDonald’s chomping neighbor.