Do Organic Consumers Shop Exclusively at the Jerk Store?

A new study examines the connection between organic food marketing and anti-social behavior.


“Is that USDA organic or Oregon organic or Portland organic?” asks a character played by singer Carrie Brownstein, one of the stars of the great IFC network sketch comedy Portlandia, in a widely loved restaurant skit from the show’s first episode last year.

“It’s just all across the board organic,” the server responds before excusing herself.

When she returns a moment later, the waitress shares with the diners a pamphlet of information about the chicken before presenting its “papers” for inspection. This helps her to fill in the pretentious would-be diners on the life of “Colin,” who as its name suggests actually was a roosterâ€"which makes the joke even funnierâ€"before it came to star as an entrée.

Kendall J. Eskine, a psychology professor at Loyola University New Orleans, calls the Portlandia skit “very funny, to say the least.”

Eskine knows a thing or two about the links between thought, self, other, and eating. His body of research focuses on “how our everyday embodied experiences shape our cognitive architecture.”

His latest paper, "Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments," looks at whether people exposed to organic food marketing are so self-satisfied that they are less likely to express empathy toward others.

Extrapolating from existing research on “moral licensing” that found a negative relationship between altruism and salient moral identity, Eskine theorized his research would reveal “that those exposed to organic foods would help less and make harsher moral judgments compared to those exposed to non-organic foods.”

Indeed Eskine's latest research, published last week in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, pegs organic consumers as anti-social jerks. Or at least those are the sort of stark terms that the press has used to frame Eskine’s research.

And while at least some segment of organic consumers has been painted as pretentious and elitist since even before Dave Barry was cracking timely Windows 98 jokes, Eskine says that lumping his research in with such anti-organic digs misses his point.

“I’m not arguing that organic food itself is making people harsh judgers or non-altrustic,” he tells me by email. “What the data suggest is that mere exposure to organic labeling can be enough to lead people to affirm their moral identities, which in much past research can lead people to act unethically later.

“This research points to the idea that its marketing might entice people to affirm their moral identities,” Eskine says. “I think it’s important for eaters of all types to be mindful of their decisions and try to extend their altruism beyond mere food purchases.”

But if people have misunderstood his point at times, it may be because Eskine’s paper appears to conflate “organic foods” with “organic marketing,” and to focus more on the former than on the latter. The word “label” also appears just once in the paper.

Not surprisingly, some critics have pounced on the study. Its research “methodology was utterly ridiculous,” writes Martin Cizmar, a Portland writer and author of the so-ironic-it’s-not-ironic-it’s-ironic book Chubster: A Hipster’s Guide to Losing Weight While Staying Cool.

Another critic calls Eskine’s methodology “demented” forâ€"among other claimed faultsâ€"its small sample size. But in the next sentence that same writer goes on to belittle the integrity of the five-dozen or so anonymous undergraduate students who Eskine (like many academic researchers) used as research subjectsâ€"saying undergrads are “not exactly known for the tensile strength of their moral fiber.”

Even though that critic’s argument was stillborn, the Eskine study does appear to have limitations.

For example, while this is the first study to look at “organic foods [that] are often marketed with moral terms (e.g., Honest Tea, Purity Life, and Smart Balance),” the link between moral marketing and organics here is tenuous. According to the Smart Balance website, for example, only two out of 33 Smart Balance products even use the term “organic” in their marketing. That means consumers can still attach a level of “smart”-ness to themselves when buying non-organic Smart Balance purchases.

Eskine calls this a “tricky question” and says he’s “currently designing a study to test this exact question.”

Given the heated food rhetoric I see every day, it’s no surprise that writers and bloggers have labeled Eskine everything from a “stooge” to a “troll,” and given rise to the inevitable claims that Eskine is a corporate plant or some sort of Johnny Monsantoseed.

So who did fund the study?

“I received NO funding for this research,” Eskine says, “and it’s disheartening when everyone assumes otherwise.”

But Eskine must hate organics, right? Strike two.

“I regularly purchase organic foods and do not think they make people ‘jerks,’” he says. “I regularly consume organic food and believe it is the environmentally and ethically superior choice when one has the resources and access to such products,” he adds.

Organic consumers may not be jerks, but it’s just as true that we can’t all afford a Colin in every pot.

Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates in favor of food freedomâ€"the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing.