Organic food, altruism, and you: why research methods matter…

by Allyson Green on February 25, 2013

The scenario for today’s analysis is this: You walk out of the grocery store with a re-usable bag full of tasty organic vegetables slung over your shoulder when a fellow grocery shopper walks up and asks if you can spare a few minutes to assist him. According to a study out of Loyola University, the shopper next to you with a bag full of ice cream and cookies might offer 25 minutes of her time while you, the morally superior organic food shopper,  are more likely to spare just 13 minutes to help the person in need.

Hmm…organic food eaters are cold-hearted? Ouch.  My cold heart just sank with that news! Before we all swear off organic food for fear of becoming unfriendly, let’s take a closer look at what this research actually means.

String is king

Does what’s in your grocery bag affect the way you treat people? Photo: fixler via Flickr

According to Dr. Kendall Eskine, lead researcher and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Loyola, the results of this study “suggest that exposure to organic foods may lead people to affirm their moral identities, which attenuates their desire to be altruistic.” Translation: seeing organic food reminds us of the moral values on which we base our sense of identity, and that reminder reduces our concern for other people.  Notice the careful wording of the conclusion. Exposure to organic foods. They didn’t actually test the effect of buying organic food. The conclusions that can be drawn from a study like this (or any other) are limited by the actual design of the study. In this case, the test answered the specific question:

What effect does looking at pictures of organic, comfort, and regular food have on 62 Loyola University undergraduate students’ desire to donate their time to help another researcher without compensation in return?

Does looking at this righteous fruit make you feel a bit self-righteous?

This is quite different than testing whether buying organic food makes you a jerk, but we use specific questions like this to shed light on broader questions. When we look at a study, whether it’s on the effect of buying organic food, drinking Pepsi, or eating soy, we need to consider three important aspects of the study itself: reliability, validity, and generalizability.

  1. Reliability: Yes, just like families have those reliable and unreliable members, studies can have reliable and unreliable variables. Think consistency. Your oven is reliable if it consistently heats up to the same temperature when it’s on a certain setting. That temperature might not actually be accurate, but it’s at least reliable. The same is true in research. In this study, researchers checked one aspect of reliability by asking a different group of students to choose whether the pictures of food used in the study showed typical organic foods, typical comfort foods, or neither. When students consistently chose similar categories for the pictures (e.g., assigned the ice cream picture to the comfort food group), the researchers knew they could pretty confidently use these pictures to represent organic, comfort, or regular foods.

    Reliability example: my oven consistently heats up to 350 when the dial is set at 300. Not very accurate… but pretty reliable!

  2. Validity: This means something actually measures what it says it’s measuring. The temperature reading on your oven thermometer is a valid measurement of temperature because it actually tells you how hot or cold the inside of your oven is. Validity is extremely important. If the way we measure a variable (e.g. exposure to organic food) isn’t valid, then whatever relationships we find with that variable is also not valid. One aspect of validity in this study is whether looking at a picture of organic food is a valid measure of “exposure to organic food.” We can also look at whether the number of minutes you are willing to spare to help someone is a valid measure of altruism. The researchers cite other studies that use these same measurements, which gives evidence for their validity. While frequent use doesn’t necessarily mean a technique actually measures what it claims to measure, it’s usually a sign that someone along the line has checked it out. Having no background in the psychology of altruism myself, I’ll give this study the benefit of the doubt.

    Validity example: This oven thermometer actually measures the temperature of the oven. It’s a valid measurement… unlike the dial above which does not actually measure the temperature.

  3. Generalizability: We all generalize. We eat a chocolate chip cookie, love it, and assume we’ll love all chocolate chip cookies. But in research, while generalizability is the goal, it’s not always straightforward. Some studies look at specific populations (in this case: Loyola University undergraduates) and then try to apply conclusions to other populations (e.g., all people who are exposed to organic food). If Loyola students share characteristics with people in general , then we might be confident in finding the same results if we studied people who are not Loyola students. To check this comparison, we would want to look at any factors that could influence the results of the study: age, income, interest in organic food, love of comfort food, race, profession, baseline morality levels, etc. If the groups are similar enough, we can probably make a claim about both groups. There are cases, however, where results of a study are not generalizable to other groups. For example, the results of a study on vitamin C content of organic tomatoescannot be applied to organic peppers, since they are different vegetables with different ways of creating vitamin C.

    Generalizability example: Chocolate chip cookies bake perfectly in 10 minutes…so, does that mean a cupcake will also bake in 10 minutes? Not so, dear friends, since they don’t really share enough characteristics.

Back to being a jerk…

Does the relationship between seeing organic food and helping someone out seem valid? I think so. Can we generalize the results of this study to non-students? Maybe. Can we say that “exposure to organic food” is the same as “buying organic food?” No. That’s not what this study actually tested. But we do research with the hope of adding to our current understanding as well as sparking interest in related topics, and that’s what this study has done.

So, take heart in knowing this study is not actually suggesting organic food is the cause of the world’s cold-heartedness. It is suggesting, however, that studying the psychological effects of food is worth our time. If organic food is somehow related to our morality, as this study suggests, we should try to understand that relationship better. We all eat food. We all make moral decisions. Why not study the two?

Now, go forth and analyze studies. Eat organic food, eat comfort food, and help out your neighbors… no matter what kind of food you expose yourself to!

Photo credit: Tamara van Molken via photopin cc