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Get Stressed, Stop Organics, Become A Better Person

Maybe you thought self-righteousness was the primary consequence of eating organic food. New research indicates it's actually selfishness.
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Do you want to be a better person? First, get stressed out. And whatever you do, don’t go near organic food.

Those are the counterintuitive implications of two newly published studies. One finds that exposure to organic foods reduces willingness to help others, while the other reports high levels of stress can increase trustworthiness and sharing.

Kendall Eskine, a psychologist at Loyola University New Orleans, examined the psychological impact of organics in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. His work builds on the concept of “moral licensing”—the notion that the doing of some kind of virtuous deed gives us license to engage in less than ethical behavior.

Eskine’s experiment featured 62 undergraduates, who were told they were participating in two unrelated studies—a consumer research survey and a moral judgment test. They were first presented with photos of four common food items, which they rated in terms of desirability. Some saw pictures of healthy foods that were labeled organic (including an apple and a tomato); others saw “comfort food” items such as ice cream and cookies; and still others saw neutral foods, including oatmeal and beans.

They were then presented with a series of descriptions of people behaving badly, including one in which a student steals library books, and another in which a congressman accepts bribes. They were asked to rate each from “not at all morally wrong” to “very morally wrong.” Finally, they were told volunteers were badly needed for another experiment, and asked how much time, if any, they were willing to give to help the researcher out.

“Those exposed to organic food made significantly harsher moral judgments than those exposed to control foods or comfort foods,” Eskine reports. In addition, they “volunteered significantly less time” for the additional experiment.

“These findings reveal that organic foods and morality do share the same conceptual space,” Eskine concludes, adding that the study “suggests that exposure to organic foods helps people affirm their moral identities, and attenuates their desire to be altruistic.”

Meanwhile, German researchers report high levels of stress can trigger certain specific kinds of pro-social behavior. A research team led by University of Freiburg psychologist Bernardette von Dawans conducted an experiment featuring 64 male students from the University of Zurich.

Participants were subjected to a standard social stress test, in which half took part in tension-inducing activities such as speaking in public and doing complex mental arithmetic calculations. The other half performed easier, non-anxiety-provoking variations of those tasks.

All then played a series of games designed to reveal their level of trust, willingness to share, and openness to punishing their opponents. The results: “Stress exposure increased trust, trustworthiness and sharing behavior in social interactions.”

While the so-called “fight-or-flight” response is regarded as a typical response to stress, the researchers note, their results suggest “tend and befriend” might be closer to the mark: increased levels of pro-social behavior are a common coping mechanism for anxiety, even among men.

Von Dawans and her colleagues speculate this stress-buffering dynamic may reflect higher levels of oxytocin in our stressed-out brains. “Stress does not necessarily lead to negative feelings, social conflicts, and aggressive behavior,” they conclude.

Together, the two studies—released days apart—raise a question: What happens if you’re late for an appointment because you’re waiting in a slow checkout line at Whole Foods? Does the stress make you kinder to the clerk, or the does the perceived virtuousness of your purchases lead you behave like a jerk?

The answer will have to await further research. In the meantime, keep in mind that if you swear by organic, non-GMO foods, your eating habits may lead to a different type of GMO: Generalized Moral Obliviousness.