Where Turnips Can Make You a Jerk: New Study Finds Organic Food Consumers to be More Judgmental

New research in The Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science finds that people who shop at organic food stores are more inclined to be judgmental. Organic foods “reduce prosocial behavior and harshen moral judgments,” the study concludes.

In other words, they make you a self-centered jerk.  

"We found that the organic people judged much harder compared to the control or comfort food groups," said researcher Kendall Eskine in an interview on a Portland station. "On a scale of 1 to 7, the organic people were 5.5, while the controls were about a 5 and the comfort food people were a 4.89."

This finding amuses me. I shop at an organic store, too, for my family’s meats, because I like the humane treatment standards they enforce, and their cheese selection is great. For other goods I go elsewhere.

Every time I’m in that store I’m annoyed, so this research morsel resonates with me. I’m annoyed by the way the store is designed, so that customers are constantly forced to bump into each other or be in each other’s way. I’m annoyed as hell by the prices, naturally.

The behavior of my fellow shoppers intrigues me, especially some with young children, who alternate between a total “kids rule” tolerance of any ill-mannered, wild behavior their kids might inflict on other shoppers, and a manic, jittery over-parenting style of narrating volubly about each and every food item as if it’s a make-or-break Learning Moment, in effect forcing everyone around them to listen to what awesome, creative, engaged parents they are. Enough already!

Then there are the customers who ponder a package’s ingredients Talmudically for minutes on end, thus impolitely blocking access for those behind them.  You’d think that anyone who grew up on Froot Loops, Count Chocula and Ding Dongs would be long been dead by now, given the gravity with which ingredients are appraised.

I guess it’s true that organic food exposure really does make us judgmental. It’s certainly had that effect on me—but toward my fellow shoppers, rather than the non-organic shopper.

This research hypothesizes that “exposure” to organic food leads “people to affirm their moral identities, which attenuates their desire to be altruistic.”  That is to say, organic food consumers are a morally-identified community that takes some altruism-endangering pleasure in its moral identification vis a vis those who don’t belong to the club.

There’s an adjective for this behavior:  sanctimonious.

We liberals don’t like sanctimony when it comes from religious or social conservatives, but this research is a small cautionary tale that we’re dishing out some sanctimonious, intolerant, and judgmental behavior of our own.

In particular, organic food is de rigueur among a subset of affluent parents who tend to roam the Whole Foods aisles: parents who have emphatic, evangelically-held (sanctimonious) opinions about which parenting methods are superior, and will happily share those views with you.

The reaction to Time magazine’s cravenly manipulative cover a few weeks ago about “attachment parenting” illustrated the fractious balkanization of maternal creeds.

This “organic food set” isn’t a live-and-left-live, nonchalant group of consumers. If it’s not a judgment about food choices, then it might well be a judgment about breastfeeding, sleeping arrangements, day-care, vaccinations, natural childbirth, public transportation, yoga, baby slings, pedagogy, nap times…whatever.

My inner armchair psychologist—as well as common sense—tells me that there must be a serious, poignant insecurity or fear that would inspire judgmental attitudes. Random people just don’t get so worked up about passing judgment or wielding what they take to be their superior values unless it satisfies some personal, private need or affirmation to do so. This kind of judgment emanates from a hot emotional space, not from a cool intellectual one.

But the upshot of the judgment, whatever its cause, is that organic food’s apparently a dog-eat-dog world.

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