Study: If You Like a Food's Politics, You'll Find It More Nutritious

Anything "organic" or "low-fat" must be good for you, right? Ask people how fattening those organic chocolate-covered peanuts are, and they'll guess a lower number than they did for the non-organic version. They'll also eat more than they would have otherwise. The same goes for "low-fat" products. The effect has been called the "health halo" and it's pretty well-documented. But now it seems health halo may be too narrow a term: This study hints that any association with virtue makes a food feel healthier. In two clever experiments, people who thought that a company engaged in "fair trade" saw its chocolate as less fattening than did people who didn't know that about the company.

In one experiment, Jonathon P. Schuldt of California State University at Northridge and his co-authors signed up 56 people through Amazon's Mechanical Turk site and paid them each a nickel to estimate how the number of calories in a Petersen's chocolate bar compared to other brands. Twenty-nine people simply read that Petersen's, a small (and fictional) company, made really good chocolate. The other 27 learned, in addition, that Petersen's was a "fair trade" company—and those people guessed a significantly lower number of calories for the Petersen's product.

That result doesn't close the case, as the authors note in their paper, published online this month in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Maybe "fair trade" can be taken to imply fair dealing for customers as well as suppliers. And anyway, what entitles the psychologists to assume that people are all alike? If you approve of the fair trade movement, maybe there is a halo effect around fair trade products. But what if you think squeezing cocoa farmers is an admirable exercise in maximizing shareholder value for Petersen's stockholders? (Such people exist, of course, and a number of them are running for President.) If you don't see the halo in one domain, you're unlikely to see it in the other.

To address these and other issues, Schuldt et al. employed a second, more rigorous experiment. They asked 192 University of Michigan students to read the description of that yummy Petersen's chocolate, which, for everyone, included that same blather about hand-crafting and rigorous testing. The sample was divided into three groups: One received no further information about Petersen's. Another set read the bit about how Petersen's "pays its cocoa farmers 50% more than the standard market price for cocoa, to ensure that the farmers receive a fair wage for their efforts." Others, in contrast, read that Petersen was an almost comically nasty company that paid lousy wages, resisted building schools and even fought to preserve child labor on West African cocoa farms.

All the readers also completed a questionnaire to assess how much they cared about ethical food production (one question, for instance, asked if, and how much, they agreed with the statement "It is important that the food I eat on a typical day comes from a country in which human rights are not violated").

Result: As the researchers expected, information about Petersen's "fair trade" practices made people more likely to see their candy as low-calorie if those people cared about fair trade. The higher people scored on a measure of their concern for the issue, the less fattening they perceived the fair-trade chocolate to be, and the more calories they perceived in the non-fair-trade version.

That result jibes with work by Dan Kahan at Yale Law School, which showed that people will accept the scientific authority of a credentialed expert who confirms their values, but will say there's something fishy and untrustworthy about the exact same expert if his science contradicts their beliefs. (I've written about the study here and a pdf of the paper is here.) In both studies, ideological commitment changes perception of the facts, without conscious awareness.

Ideology is supposed to be the result of conscious, rational reflection about facts and principles. So you would think that people who have decided they are committed will engage their conscious, rational minds when a relevant issue comes up. But as I read Schuldt et al., they found instead that ideological commitment shuts down the conscious mind. Kahan et al. did too. In the Kahan study, people discounted the credentials and arguments of an expert, rather than weighing them. In the Schuldt experiments, they saw food as nutritionally better if it was ideologically closer to them (without pausing to reason out the fact that a gram of milk chocolate has the same effect on you regardless of how much fattier other chocolates are, or how well the cows were treated). In the rationalist picture of the mind, our values guide our thinking, which then guide our actions. But it may be more accurate to say that our values block our thinking, letting unconscious processes run the show.

Schuldt, J., Muller, D., & Schwarz, N. (2012). The "Fair Trade" Effect: Health Halos From Social Ethics Claims Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611431643 Check out my Google Profile:

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why is 18 the age of adulthood if the brain can take 30 years to mature?

Neuroscience research suggests it might be time to rethink our ideas about when exactly a child becomes an adult.

Mind & Brain
  • Research suggests that most human brains take about 25 years to develop, though these rates can vary among men and women, and among individuals.
  • Although the human brain matures in size during adolescence, important developments within the prefrontal cortex and other regions still take pace well into one's 20s.
  • The findings raise complex ethical questions about the way our criminal justice systems punishes criminals in their late teens and early 20s.
Keep reading Show less

Apparently even NASA is wrong about which planet is closest to Earth

Three scientists publish a paper proving that Mercury, not Venus, is the closest planet to Earth.

Strange Maps
  • Earth is the third planet from the Sun, so our closest neighbor must be planet two or four, right?
  • Wrong! Neither Venus nor Mars is the right answer.
  • Three scientists ran the numbers. In this YouTube video, one of them explains why our nearest neighbor is... Mercury!
Keep reading Show less

Mini-brains attach to spinal cord and twitch muscles

A new method of growing mini-brains produces some startling results.

(Lancaster, et al)
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find a new and inexpensive way to keep organoids growing for a year.
  • Axons from the study's organoids attached themselves to embryonic mouse spinal cord cells.
  • The mini-brains took control of muscles connected to the spinal cords.
Keep reading Show less