Annals of Bad Health Reporting: Organic Makes You a Jerk Edition

TIME: Does Organic Food Turn You into a Jerk? (Short answer: yes)
The Atlantic: Does Organic Food Make You a Judgmental Jerk? Maybe
Jezebel: Study Suggests that Eating Organic Foods Contributes to Moral Depravity
Pacific Standard: Get Stressed, Stop Organics, Become A Better Person

I somehow missed it in May when it made the rounds, but the TIME piece came up in a Facebook conversation the other day, just after I had written about bad health reporting and chicken nuggets. So I was primed. Just seeing the headline I knew. I knew. I knew it was going to be another article with a linkbait headline and an over interpreted the study. That turned out to be the best case scenario.

My two questions when reading an article like this are:

“Did the study even demonstrate what the journalist says it says?”
and
“Did the study even test it’s own hypothesis in any meaningful way?” (hint: the answer is almost always in the controls)

You can take a guess what happened.

And a new study shows that organic foodies’ humane regard for the well-being of animals makes some people rather snobbish. The report, published last week in the Journal of Social Psychological & Personality Science, notes that exposure to organic foods can “harshen moral judgments.” Which, to us, sounds like a nice way of saying that organic-food seekers are arrogant.

. . . Eskine and his team showed research subjects photographs of food, ranging from überorganic fruits and vegetables to fattening brownies and baked goods. He then gauged the primed eaters’ moral fiber with stories that warranted judgment, like one about a lawyer who lurks in an ER to try to persuade patients to sue for their injuries.

Reacting to the events on a numbered scale, the organic-food participants were more judgmental than those in the comfort-food category. They were also more reluctant when asked to volunteer time to help strangers, the study found, offering only 13 minutes vs. the brownie eaters’ 24 minutes. It’s like the group had already fulfilled its moral-justice quota by buying organic, so it felt all right slacking off in other ethics-based situations. Eskine labeled it “moral licensing.”

The writer, Nick Carbone has told us that people who seek organic food are arrogant and snobbish. Is that what the study he has described shows? No. It shows that anybody, not just organic shoppers can become more judgmental and stingy when exposed to pictures of organic food. It shows that it is the exposure to images of food that triggers this, not “organic foodies’ humane regard for the well-being of animals.”

This would be an interesting observation, if it had been demonstrated in the literature that organic shoppers were in fact more judgmental and stingier. It would provide a clue as to causality. But the entire underlying premise is never addressed. It’s not like there is no literature on the subject. Or that you can’t find any research to support the premise. No one even tried. Not even the authors of the paper.

The paper references the literature on how different foods can effect people’s moral bearings. But it does not look at the literature on the moral or ethical attitudes of organic consumers in order to establish the premise that organic consumers are be more judgmental and stingy. The hypothesis they are testing is that exposure to images of organic food could influence people’s levels of empathy. Do they even succeed at that? I would say, No.

First let’s look at what the study did.

Sixty-two Loyola University undergraduates (37 females, 25 males) participated in the present experiment for course credit and were randomly assigned to one of three food conditions (organic, comfort, control) in a between-subjects design. Told that they were
participating in two unrelated studies (a consumer research survey about food desirability and a separate moral judgment task), participants were first given a packet containing four counterbalanced pictures of food items from one of the following categories: organic foods with organic food labels (apple, spinach, tomato, carrot), comfort foods (ice cream, cookie, chocolate, brownie), or control foods (oatmeal, rice, mustard, beans). Participants also rated each food item on a 7-point scale (1 = not at all desirable to 7 = very desirable) to help
corroborate the cover story as well as provide information about their personal food preferences.

. . . Participants next received a packet containing six counterbalanced moral transgressions describing second cousins engaging in consensual incest, a man eating his already-dead dog, a congressman accepting bribes, a lawyer prowling hospitals for victims, a person shoplifting, and a student stealing library books. Each moral judgment was indicated on a 7-point scale (1= not at all morally wrong to 7 = very morally wrong). As with previous research (Eskine et al., 2011), all judgments were averaged into a single score.
After next answering demographic questions, participants were told “that another professor from another department is also conducting research and really needs volunteers.” They were informed that they would not receive course credit or compensation for their help and were asked to indicate how many minutes (out of 30) they would be willing to volunteer.”

The results:

“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.

Before we move on to why they fail to test their hypothesis, I want to highlight a missed opportunity in their use of the data. If they really wanted to show something about organic consumers specifically and not just Loyola undergrads in general, they would have calculated the correlation between the strength of subjects’ preference for organic foods and and their response to the moral challenges. That might have told us something about organic consumers’ moral orientations. But they didn’t and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, since there were no controls in this experiment to begin with.

Wait, what about the control group of oatmeal, rice, mustard and beans? Those were meant as a control in a comparison to organic fruits and vegetable vs. non-organic desserts. That would be fine if there was one variable of moral superiority, organic versus non-organic, but there are two, the other being fruits and vegetables versus desserts. As the test was designed, we have no way of knowing whether it is was the moral halo of fruits and vegetable or the moral halo of organic that produced the result. And as anyone who has ever shopped at Trader Joe’s can tell you, produce isn’t the only type of organic food. There are plenty of organic desserts and snacks. In fact, organic junk food is a bigger segment of the organic market than produce.

If it had those proper controls, we could compare the difference in response between an organic carrot and a conventional carrot. We could compare the difference between organic oatmeal and conventional apple. But as designed, we can’t compare anything meaningful.

The correct comparison would have been organic produce vs. conventional produce, organic neutral foods vs. conventional neutral foods and organic desserts vs. conventional desserts. If those had been the categories, if they had calculated the correlation of preference for organic with moral response and the study group had been larger than 62 students it might have told us something interesting but it didn’t.

The study took about five minutes to read and about 8 seconds to see the flaws. The fact that these poorly designed, under powered studies are reported on at all drives me crazy. It’s even more infuriating that they are misrepresented instead of debunked. The fact that they absolutely litter the health sections of reputable publications is all the more maddening because interesting and significant papers are routinely ignored.

But before we let organic consumers off the hook too fast, note that the first commenter on the TIME version of the story went out of her way to make Eskine’s point.

To label people that eat organic food as “Jerks” is completely ridiculous. I am a proud supporter of organic food and will be till the day that i die. Calling someone a jerk because they eat organic food is childish. There is one thing that this article did get right about the organic community. We do congratulate ourselves for our moral and environmental decisions, because we are doing the right thing. Choosing all organic foods shows that you care about your health and the environment.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Lit References:
Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments | Kendall J. Eskine | 2013
Final draft [pdf]
Organic purchasing motivations and attitudes: are they ethical? | M.G. McEachern, P. McClean | 2002
The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease | M Kratz, T Baars, S Guyenet
An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research | A Nicolia, A Manzo, F Veronesi, D Rosellini | 2103

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About Marc Brazeau

Free lance cultural attaché. Writing at REALFOOD.ORG.

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