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Attention Whole Foods 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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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' (WFM) success come courtesy of the world's worst people? Are the shoppers at Safeway (SWY) simply more pleasant human beings? Do those who prefer Big Macs (MCD) treat their fellow man with more sensitivity than Kashi (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.
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