Attention Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFM) Shoppers: Everyone Hates You

By Justin Rohrlich  SEP 24, 2012 1:00 PM

Organic food may not be better for you, but its fans feel (and act) superior.

 


MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL Americans bought $24.4 billion worth of organic foods in 2011 to little nutritional -- but great psychological -- effect if the conclusions of several studies are to be believed.

A "comprehensive meta-analysis" out today from Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy finds no demonstrable proof that "organic" translates into "healthier." As researcher Crystal Smith-Spangler said, “We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.”

So if buying organic doesn't have a physiological impact on consumers, what does it do? Apparently, it has turned them into a pack of raving a**holes.

In a May 2012 study, Loyola University’s Kendall Eskine found that “After viewing a few organic foods, comfort foods, or control foods, participants who were exposed to organic foods volunteered significantly less time to help a needy stranger, and they judged moral transgressions significantly harsher than those who viewed nonorganic foods.”

“These results,” wrote Eskine, “suggest that exposure to organic foods may lead people to affirm their moral identities, which attenuates their desire to be altruistic.”

Or, in the words of New York Times reporter Hope Reeves, “[P]eople who eat organic food are, on the whole, more likely to be jerks.”

Could it be? Can the contents of one’s shopping cart mean all that? Has Whole Foods' (NASDAQ:WFM) success come courtesy of the world’s worst people? Are the shoppers at Safeway (NYSE:SWY) simply more pleasant human beings? Do those who prefer Big Macs (NYSE:MCD) treat their fellow man with more sensitivity than Kashi (NYSE:K) eaters? While Eskine’s study has its detractors, similar results have been documented by a raft of other academics.

In 2009, Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto actually found that "purchasing green products may produce the counterintuitive effect of licensing asocial and unethical behaviors."

"In line with the halo associated with green consumerism," they point out, "people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green than conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products."

A "License" to Behave Badly?

And here's what Emily Anthes of Scientific American had to say, in a September 2010 article titled "Green and Mean: Eco-Shopping Has a Side Effect":
The investigators believe that a “licensing effect” might be at work. “When we engage in a good deed, that gives us a kind of satisfaction,” says Nina Mazar, professor of marketing and a co-author of the paper. With that self-satisfied feeling can come tacit permission to behave more selfishly next time we have the opportunity, Mazar says. Previous research has documented this licensing effect in other contexts; a study published last year revealed that asking people to ruminate on their humanitarian qualities actually reduced their charitable giving.
Interestingly, the “licensing effect” appears to come into play outside the supermarket as well. In their 2011 study, “Conspicuous Conservation: The Prius Effect and Willingness to Pay for Environmental Bona Fides," Ph.D. economics candidates Alison and Steve Sexton (they happen to be brother and sister) explored something called "conspicuous conservation.” During the course of their research, Sexton and Sexton discovered the existence of a "green halo" that tends to appear above the heads of Toyota (NYSE:TM) Prius owners -- a halo that a Honda (NYSE:HMC) hybrid does not, or cannot, bestow.

The Sextons wrote:
During extensive interviews with early hybrid vehicle adopters in California, Heffner et al. [2007] found that symbolism was important to hybrid owners. One interview subject said his Prius “made a statement” to others and that the Civic Hybrid communicated symbolism less effectively than the Prius. The authors reported that most of the individuals they interviewed had “only a basic understanding of environmental issues or the ecological benefits of HEVs (hybrid electric vehicles),” but “bought a symbol of preserving the environment that they could incorporate into a narrative of who they are or who they wish to be.” In addition, anecdotal evidence from popular media reports and opinion surveys lends credence to theories of status seeking among Prius owners (see for instance Maynard and Bunkley 2007-07-04).

The Prius owner’s halo may in fact be greener than that above the head of a Hummer driver -- but those who own Hummers express their own sense of moral licensing.

"As we studied American Hummer owners and their ideological beliefs, we found that they consider Hummer driving a highly moral consumption choice," wrote researchers Marius K. Luedicke, Craig J. Thompson, and Markus Giesler in 2009. "For Hummer owners, it is possible to claim the moral high ground." Indeed, Hummer owners “often believe they represent a bastion again anti-American discourses evoked by their critics.”

According to Luedicke, Thompson, and Giesler, "Our analysis of the underlying American identity discourses revealed that being under siege by (moral) critics is an historically established feature of being an American. The moralistic critique of their consumption choices readily inspired Hummer owners to adopt the role of the moral protagonist who defends American national ideals."

The Privileged Just Can't Help It?

Alas, a March 2012 study, “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” suggests our purchasing power might have as much to do with bad behavior as our purchases themselves.

To wit:
We reason that increased resources and independence from others cause people to prioritize self-interest over others’ welfare and perceive greed as positive and beneficial, which in turn gives rise to increased unethical behavior. We predict that, given their abundant resources and increased independence, upper-class individuals should demonstrate greater unethical behavior and that one important reason for this tendency is that upper-class individuals hold more favorable attitudes toward greed.
In the words of another researcher, co-author Stephane Cote, associate professor of organizational behavior and psychology at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, "We found a trend that upper-class individuals -- people that have the most money, the most income, the best education and the most prestigious job -- have a tendency to engage in less ethical behavior."

"This doesn't mean that every rich person will behave less ethically than any less-rich person... But we found a tendency,” Cote told The Canadian Press. “So if you look across people in a variety of settings, the higher-class people tend to engage in more unethical behavior."

Pass the arugula.

Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @chickenalaking
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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