Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ask Team Ambiguity: Do Good Things Make Us Bad People?

Photo Credit: Morgue File by Mantasmagorical

For this week's Team Ambiguity post, I'm going to look at what I think is one of the most interesting things I have encountered in the last several weeks: the idea that mere exposure, under controlled circumstances, to images of organic foods, can make people behave more judgmentally and less compassionately immediately afterward. This article by Diane Mapes in Health on Today  discusses a study conducted by the Psych Department of Loyola under the leadership of assistant professor Kendall Eskine. For the study, 60 undergrads were divided into three groups, one of which was exposed to clearly marked images of organic food, one images of unhealthy comfort food and the last (the control group) images of food that were neither particularly unhealthy nor organic. The groups were then asked to make moral judgments on depictions of various moral breaches, which they rated from one to seven. After that, they were asked to volunteer for a bogus study, delineating the amount of time they would be available. The results were that people who had been looking at the organic apples and spinach were more likely to condemn and less willing to help. The nicest people? Brownie viewers. The results, apparently, are due to a phenomenon called "moral licensing."

I will admit that I can't help but view this result with a certain amount of snickering satisfaction. Having lived for years in a place where people acted with regard to iced cookies like they were Fred Phelps at Richard Simmons' funeral, I enjoy a certain amount of Schadenfreude when the moral perfection of Whole Foods shoppers comes into question. I say this, though, as a woman who both purchases a weekly farm box from a local organic farm and is growing her own organic produce. It has often been my observation that the privileged position of being able to buy one's own health food at a store can sometimes produce snobbery and total lack of sympathy for those whose disposable income and priorities do not find them spending $8 a pound for grass-fed beef. But the fact that just looking at pictures of organic food would produce a similar result? That's kind of astounding.

The framework for a Team Ambiguity post is that we (Team Ambiguity) take a deeper look, past shallow assumptions, easy answers and side-taking. In each discourse we consider, there is a body in the living room and all the conversation is about the weather or the wine. Our job is to examine the body, identify it and try to say why it is there. I will throw some ideas out, but the rest is up to you. The magic happens in comments, so you're going to want to make sure and hit "Subscribe by email." Here is my take so far:

The Left Leg: This isn't about organic food. Let's just start from that point, so the conversation can get really interesting right away. Kenneth Eskine, interestingly, already knows this. Organic food is something that we associate with a kind of correctness that we either accede to or rebel against. For some of us, perhaps, pesticides and factory farms are wonderful advances of human technology, but, mostly, we see them as necessary or unnecessary evils. We give in, we stand up or we compromise. Perhaps, we don't care. But the association remains. So what was this Loyola team really testing? Perhaps, in organic food, they found a perfect symbol to access the real question of moral licensing itself. Do our associations with what we think is right automatically predispose us to act like asses? Would we get the same result with exposure of the right demographics to pictures of babies worn in slings or nursing, people praying or meditating, people doing yoga, or eight ounces of fresh water?

The Right Leg: There's right and then there's right. I keep coming back to the thought that there is a profound difference between buying a bundle of organic spinach at Whole Foods and growing your own spinach and an even greater difference between those and teaching people in a desert wasteland to grow their own spinach using permaculture. I can't make out how and if any of this factors into flashcards of organic food and moral ratings, but, when I reflect on the most obnoxious organic foodies I know, what stands out for me is that they are consumers, never farmers. And I'd say this holds true across the line. The religious folk who stand around throwing words of stone are never the same ones in the ghettos not just saving souls but lives. We can't afford judgement when we are placed in the fray. If we have energy to condemn, it is symptom of inaction and apathy, not moral elevation.

The Left Arm: Are we what we see? If we are immediately and objectively influenced by the vision of an apple with an organic sticker, if this sight makes us subtly and temporarily a different human being, what does that say about the rest of our media selections? I find I cannot regularly read anybody without having them show up in my writing. Does Gregory House in some way inform who I am as a human being? And does this mean I have to stop watching True Blood?

The Right Arm: Is sin the best avenue for virtue? The fact that the comfort food viewers were the least judgmental and most helpful has gone largely unremarked in the articles I have read on this subject. But what does that mean? In the presence of those items which we enjoy but which make us feel less than something less than righteous, it seems we become the kindest. Would Christmas be half as much fun if we served beet salads and sprouted quinoa? Apparently not. And doesn't this hold true in life in general? Humility is often the catalyst for giving. Exhibit A: Alcoholics Anonymous. Only a sinner can give of themselves in this particular way and only if they never forget what an utter and complete waste of space they once were. The never-forgetting is essential to the impetus to be there for the next sufferer who drags themselves pitifully in the door.  To forget is to become indifferent. It's the wrongness, not the rightness that breeds love.

The Body: Be very, very wary of your moral associations. How then do we proceed? Whether we are reacting to the inherent virtue of organics or merely the inherent virtue of apples, we need to stop and check ourselves. There is nothing wrong with organic food. In fact, in terms of certain kinds of organic food–locally grown, personally grown, using bio-intensive methods–I would argue that this is the direction we should be looking as a species if we want to preserve our planet and feed the hungry. But what do we think it means about us? Exercise is also good, but it isn't charity. It doesn't buy us any freedom from moral obligation. Mediation and mindfulness practices are ultimately selfish if we aren't using them to make the world a better place.

I think we associate the consumption or personal practice of notions we have labeled as "good" with doing good. You can't purchase morality at the store. At best, you can excuse yourself at times from participation in the worst of a destructive system. You can support a farmer, a businessman. This does not make you a good person. It makes you the owner of a bar of chocolate labeled "fair trade." The work of being a good person is done with others, in the practice of compassion and the gifts of our time and talent to the people and causes that we love. It demands presence, not to oneself, but to others. And you can do it with an apple as well as with a brownie. As long as you remember that the apple is not some sort of moral coupon that buys you out of loving others.

Now I want to know: What do you think? Faith in Ambiguity is open to all view points, especially dissenting ones and those that think they don't matter. The rules of discourse dictate respect at all times. Chime in and share widely.

More Information: by Baylen Linekin: Do Organic Consumers Shop Exclusively at the Jerk Store?

Martin Cizmar at Chubster: An Idiot Walks into a Farmer's Market

Do Good Deeds Make Bad People? by Clot, Grolleau, Ibanez

Images are used according to allowable terms by Morguefile.


  1. This is really interesting. It opens up a plethora of questions and suppositions.
    Perhaps the group viewing the organic stuff felt restricted (forced to be good) and then needed to impose a strict moral code on others.
    Maybe the junk food people felt freed from restrictions and this flowed through to their relaxed judgements.
    In a sort of similar vein interesting results have been achieved with reward and punishment. A S Neil in 'Summerhill' found he achieved excellent results with 'problem' children by rewarding bad behaviour.

    1. I am fascinated by this Summerhill result. Why have I not been doing this with my children? So much easier, like falling off a log!

    2. I am fascinated by this Summerhill result. Why have I not been doing this with my own children? So much easier, like falling off a log!

    3. Yes, I think there would have been a lot of falling off logs at Summerhill. :)

  2. Before we get to the body parts, I want to address the anecdote in the article. Going to a farmer's market and asking for a fruit tray is like going to a butcher and asking for a cold cut platter. It's not the fault of the vendor that the customer was shopping in the wrong place. Ditto the bag thing. It's a city ordinance in Seattle that disposable bags are to be purchased at 5 cents apiece. It's kind of a thing here. Even if it weren't, farmer's markets are not grocery stores and anyone who lives in this city knows that. Bringing your own bags is not a new thing, nor is it uncommon. That part bugged me. That said, I had the same sense of Schadenfreude when reading about the study.
    Left Leg: We have to give in on so many things. I think we're generally uncomfortable with ourselves and our level of "morality" (for lack of a better word). There's plenty we know we should be doing or doing better and for any number of reasons (some of them valid) we don't. Then there are simple things like buying organic that make us feel a little better about ourselves. "At least I did this." Generally people act like asses when they are defensive. We live in a constant state of cognitive dissonance in our society, we are so far away from the way things "should" be, we make moral concessions all the time, sometimes about things that are far beyond our control. It's uncomfortable and we compensate by taking it out on others. It seems to be rooted in our own discomfort and insecurity with the choices we make or are forced to make. Some people are just asses, though, and would be asses about anything. I think a similar case could be made for your Right Leg, too. We aren't doing everything we can, we don't want to feel morally lacking, so we tell ourselves we're OK and we are more OK than this person who doesn't do the same things we do. But we can still remain comfortably removed from the actual problems.
    Left Arm: We are totally influenced by what we see. Plenty of studies have shown that for years. It's a matter of being a reasonable and conscious consumer (for we are all consumers) and seeing things for what they are: fictions. All of it is fiction. Organic Kellogg's cereal may make you feel better about your purchase, but it is still mass-produced crap and it is still a huge multi-national corporation. It doesn't make you a better person any more than the right face cream will make you a super model. It requires a degree of effort and consciousness to sort all that out. Ditto jumping on the Whole Foods bandwagon because it's "right". The onus is on us and our capacity for reasoning to sort out what works best for us and discard the rest. Gregory House makes most anything better. He gets to be as rude and as brilliant as we wish we were and we can enjoy it for an hour. Where that breaks down is if we expect doctors to actually act that way, or if we adopt that for a lifestyle and not see it as the escapist fiction that it is.

    1. I totally agree about the farmer's market. In one of the links above, An Idiot Walks into a Farmer's Market, he makes the same comment.

      What I thought was fascinating, when I look further into the idea of moral licensing, was these kinds of behaviors: drivers of Hybrids get more tickets and accidents and drive 25% than drivers of other cars. So, not only is there a demonstrable correlation between organic food consumption and being a jerk, but there is something to the whole Prius diver sterotype. Also, when we buy someone a gift, which makes us feel good about ourselves, we are more likely to buy ourselves something unnecessary, which, in turn, makes us more likely to buy another gift. We are weirdly like hamsters on wheels.

      I think this would all be so much easier to evaluate if they were contrasting organic food consumers with conventional food consumers. It's the fact that the mere visual association creates a change that boggles my mind. Even though I've read all the same stuff on TV and violence and kids and ads and behavior etc.

  3. As for the other arm and the body, I think they go hand in hand. They speak to some ways our culture is a little bit bankrupt. We want things quick and easy and that includes our charity, our good deeds. Don't put me out too much, but make me feel better. I can give a dollar to public school projects (at Starbucks) when I'm purchasing my $4 coffee beverage and then feel all right to walk right past the real human who is asking for change outside the store. Yes, the public schools get the dollars of the coffee drinkers and that's a good thing, but it also removes us from the humanity of things. Not just the humanity of others, but of ourselves. We can stay out of things, not get dirty and very easily forget that we are, ourselves, flawed and needy individuals. Even the ones of us who are the most affluent are dependent on other people for lots of things we don't even realize. We don't like to think about that. We don't like to look in the face of real need and recognize our own dependence. It's a natural thing to give ourselves credit for our good fortune and blame others for the bad. We can't keep this illusion alive if we stop and interact with actual humanity.

    1. Cheap grace, I think it's called. I don't believe in it. You can't write a check for it. The real kind demands you look the smelly homeless man in the eye and hand him your money (or whatever it is you think you should be doing but aren't).

      I keep flashing on these permaculturists who travel to far-flung places and set up thriving food systems with local populations. They might look a lot alike, but these are not your organo-snobs. There is nothing snooty about standing knee-deep in chicken crap, moving a bunch of rain barrels and pipe into place. Gardening is very humbling, actually, at least for me.

      I think actually confronting the needs of other human beings needs to be a requirement for adulthood. It's great when churches do missions. Next spring, my son is intending to go on a home-building mission to Mexico. He of the IPad and trampoline and "What's for dinner". I can hardly wait.

  4. This is such a nuaced and interesting topic. I loved your analogy to AA, though it even breaks down there. I remember being six years sober, I was so sure that I was doing all the right things, helping people work the 12 steps, doing service in my groups as treasurer or coffee maker, etc.

    This guy I knew, who was perhaps two years sober did something that is honestly pretty slimy and I judged him harshly. I talked about him behind his back and actively undermined his fellowship. If you had asked me, I would have said, "well I'm here if he decides he wants to straighten out and he could call me rather than drinking." In reality, there was no reason he would call me. I had been a complete ass to him. Even if he did call and say he wanted to drink, I'd probably have said something like, "of course you want to drink, anyone who acts the way you have would want to drink."

    When I saw this about myself, I cried for thirty minutes straight. I hadn't become an atheist yet, so I fell to my knees begging the God I sort of believed in to help me be a better person, to help me find a way to make things right with this individual. When I did approach him and apologize, he began to cry and told me that he had really looked up to me as a new comer to AA and that when he found out what I had been saying about him, it hurt him deeply. I had crushed him. I asked his forgiveness and he gave it.

    None of this excused his actions, but my job was not to sit in judgement of his actions and turn people against him. My job was to be available if he needed help and to be of service to my fellow human beings. That continues to be my job today and I fail at it at least as often as I succeed, but I try daily to be a good person, to maintain some level of humility, which is challenging for anyone who is as arrogant as I.

    What is the body? To me, it is the facade of arrogance that we stretch over our tender and frightened self esteem. It is the ferocoius tiger formed of glass, which will shatter if jostled too strenuously, leaving our inscurities bare, exposed to the world, a raw nerve, waiting to be struck.

    The body is the human condition of pretending certitude, when what really lies before us is an invitation to inquiry.

    BTW, Whole Foods has the only underarm deoderant that I can's that salt crystal! All others cause uncomfortable rashes (I know TMI!)

    1. We fit everything into boxes. Right/wrong. Bad/good. We do it naturally and unconsciously and apparently, you can see the results in our behavior. And I think you're dead on. We are scared to death and we cloak ourselves in these moral associations to protect us then arrange ourselves along some number line as to our correctness with regard to those associations. The instant we do it, we forget it's not real. There is no inherent good or evil to any apple, brownie or bowl of rice. What freedom we would have if we could make these choices without this type of judgement! You buy organic because you can afford to, because you think it protects the earth for future generations, because you want to give your money to the farmers who farm in this way, or for whatever reason. Or you don't, for whatever reason. But there is no actual need to evaluate the action as good or bad, in any a priori sense.

  5. What do you do with an organically-grown orange that tastes like a lemon? Do you force yourself to eat it as is? Smother it in sugar and eat it? Let it go bad and toss it onto the compost? What if you live in an apartment and have no compost pile? Do you transport the decomposing orange to your daughter's house and toss onto her compost pile? Or, do you consider that having bought organic fruit in the first place establishes your moral superiority and, therefore, it's now okay just to add it to the conventionally-grown and/or inorganic waste in your garbage can?

    You could stick it in your refrigerator -- way at the back -- and leave it alone until it turns black and shrivelled at which point you'll no longer recognize it as having once been an organically-grown orange and can toss it into your garbage can with an almost clear conscience.

    Or you could just be very nice to all the people you meet on your way to McDonalds.


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