There’s an interesting new psych study out about the relationship between food and morality. The study, which was published in a peer-reviewed journal of social and personality psychology, comes to a rather provocative conclusion: When people are exposed to wholesome or organic foods, their levels of altruism decrease.
First, some context:
Recent research has revealed that specific tastes can influence moral processing, with sweet tastes inducing prosocial behavior and disgusting tastes harshening moral judgments. Do similar effects apply to different food types (comfort foods, organic foods, etc.)?
Organic or wholesome foods are often branded in moral terms: Honest Tea, Smart Water, Purity Life, Back to Nature, etc. So researcher and professor Kendall J. Eskine wanted to know: Do people act more morally when they are exposed to them? Yes and no. Eskine, the author of the study, found that the subjects became more moralistic but less altruistic:
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 suggest that exposure to organic foods may lead people to affirm their moral identities, which attenuates their desire to be altruistic.
This conclusion has its critics, but it could have been drawn straight out of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s new and well-praised book The Righteous Mind. Haidt’s thesis is that “morality binds and blinds.” In other words, our moral identities bind us to members of our moral group and they blind us to the perspectives of others.
That morality “binds and blinds” makes sense when we’re talking about touchy subjects like abortion, or stem cell research, or welfare programs, or sex–but does it really make sense when we’re talking about food? Can ethical eating be a moral identity? Or, at least, can ethical eating carry enough moral weight that it makes people “affirm their moral identities.” It certainly can (just watch the show Portlandia for a brilliant satire of this). In fact, the same impulse that makes, say, religious conservatives reject the culture of casual sex also draws spiritual liberals to organic and wholesome foods.
That impulse, as Haidt explains, is our desire for the sacred (or the pure):
The sanctity/degradation foundation evolved initially in response to the adaptive challenge of the omnivore’s dilemma, and then to the broader challenge of living in a world of pathogens and parasites. It includes the behavioral immune system, which can make us wary of a diverse array or symbolic objects and threats. It makes it possible for people to invest objects with irrational and extreme values–both positive and negative–which are important for binding groups together.
What he calls the “sanctity/degradation foundation” explains many religious or spiritual people prefer to treat their bodies as temples rather than playgrounds. For the Christian right, that means abstinence, among other things. For the Left, it means a certain type of eating:
The Sanctity foundation is used most heavily by the religious right, but it is also used on the spiritual Left. You can see the foundation’s original impurity-avoidance function in the New Age grocery stores, where you’ll find a variety of products that promise to cleanse you of “toxins.” … The Sanctity foundation is crucial for understanding the American culture wars, particularly over biomedical issues…
Though Haidt goes on to talk about issues like assisted-suicide and stem-cell research, there are food-related biomedical issues as well. The left in this country, for instance, is staunchly opposed to genetically modified foods because they seem unnatural. Part of the point of the organic movement–and the local foods movement–is a return to nature and the environment. To genetically modify foods or to pollute them with insecticides and preservatives “is a degradation of nature, and of humanity’s original nature.”
The ironic thing is that while our moral positions are supposed to make us better people, they often divide us into groups, cause us to erect walls of righteousness, and numb us to the opinions and needs of others. Almost every moral system in the world is based on the golden rule–i.e., altruism–yet, as Eskine’s study shows, moral judgments can lead people to be less empathetic and compassionate toward others. It’s just another humbling reminder that morality binds and blinds.