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

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

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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."
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