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

Hillary February 25, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Nice piece – I liked that you worked in research findings AND education on how to interpret those (and other) findings. Very important when communicating science to a broad audience!

Allyson Green February 25, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Thanks, Hillary! It was an educational experience for me trying to write this, too, as I had to actually go back through notes and make sure I understood these concepts. There’s nothing like explaining something in just a few sentences to make you realize just how much you do or do not actually understand about the concept to begin with!

Erik Janus March 4, 2013 at 10:00 pm

I totally agree with Hillary. Beautiful interweaving of fisking*, analogy and science education. Well done!

Allyson Green March 5, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Hmmm…. “fisking” is a new one for me. Thanks for the vocabulary lesson and encouragement!

Margaret Freaney February 25, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Your title got me interested right away, but sadly the article just left me with “I don’t know really what this is about.”
A study says that people who are exposed to organic food are less altruistic? or How to judge a scientific article’s claims?
Either of these are useful topics. As a math person, i like to help my students understand if something is a reliable study or not.
Great Idea for a post, just a little confusing on the main idea.

Allyson Green February 25, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Thanks for the feedback, Margaret! I went in this direction because there has already been plenty of blogs and articles written about the study itself. It’s definitely helpful to hear it felt a bit disconnected for you. Any specific suggestions on how to make the two connect better?

Jocelyn February 25, 2013 at 1:07 pm

I love your comparison examples! (And I may now be craving cookies…)

Allyson Green February 25, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Me too… :)

Mary Ellen Anderson February 25, 2013 at 1:44 pm

How often many of us read a report like the one that prompted this article and (being intellectually lazy?) simply accept its premise without question. Hopefully those reading your article will subsequently dig a bit deeper. Could it be said that students, being in a questioning atmosphere, are more likely to analyse reports than is the man on the street? Perhaps your article will awaken long dormant skills in such a person. Good article for ” the man on the street.”

Allyson Green February 25, 2013 at 2:02 pm

While I have known and been encouraged by many of those men (and women!) on the street who keep those analytical skills sharp (yourself included!), I think you’re right in that students are often more apt to do this. Maybe we’re forced to do it for so long in school that we just want to take a break from critical thinking once we’re free from assignments! I am hopeful, though, that there are more analytical thinkers among us than we might know :)

Loon February 25, 2013 at 4:45 pm

Is there a known correlation between mood and altruism? For me, it would make sense that people who are in a better mood would be more altruistic. It would also make sense that seeing pictures of icecream and cookies would improve some people’s mood more than seeing pictures of carrots and lettuce. Perhaps that would be an explanation for the studies result? Of course, testing that explanation would need further research.
Thanks for that article!

Andrew Maynard February 25, 2013 at 5:32 pm

I love the idea of having to look at pictures of carrots and lettuce making you grumpy!

Allyson Green February 25, 2013 at 11:52 pm

Ha! I’m picturing a Sesame Street sketch here involving Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch…

Anyways, the author of this study did bring that up in her discussion! She cites another line of research about comfort food connecting people together and fostering community. That comes up in the part where she discusses the need to test the actual effect of eating vs. just looking at food. I can tell you right now that looking at a picture of ice cream puts me in a good mood…. but eating it has an even greater effect!

Ali S-G February 25, 2013 at 10:53 pm

You know what?… As I was sitting down eating some “non-organic peaches” I thought about something. So it’s a proven fact that people tend to think more highly of themselves (maybe even sometimes in a selfish way). Here’s a scenario I was pondering:
One day Sally goes to the store and buys an organic apple. Presuming the apple to be healthier or better for you than a non-organic apple, she feels good about herself in that she’s eating a healthy piece of fruit. She knows this item contains healthy nutrition. She waits all day and saves her excitement till the end of the day when she can relax in her living room to eat her apple. But on her way home she sees an old man walking up to her. He sees the apple in her hand and asks if he can have it. Sally thinks about the apple and her benefitting to the apple and says no because she’d rather eat it. She wont let him steal that joy of eating the apple away from her. She paid GOOD money for that organic apple and doesn’t have time for people like him. She has better time to waste, going to Whole Foods and buying pricier organic apples.
This scenario was just made up on the spot. It wasn’t referring to anyone, and this wasn’t in any way trying to support or reject anyone’s claim or thoughts about this study. But I believe that in a way, maybe there really is a positive correlation between exposure to organic foods and “being-a-jerk,” Whether I’m wrong or right I just wanted to share that with everyone.

Allyson Green February 25, 2013 at 11:57 pm

You’re definitely on to something! The author mentions research about conscious choices affecting our morality. Since we consciously, rationally choose the organic apple, it might affect our “moral licensing” differently than if we had not consciously chosen it for all the reasons you mentioned. Sounds like a study in the making!!

Danny Yee February 26, 2013 at 8:42 am

Organic food purchasers tend to be wealthier – if only because organic food is more expensive – and one could argue that their time is worth more as a result…

Jeff Sepesi February 26, 2013 at 2:40 pm

A clear, well written and thoughtful discussion on both issues – research methods and altruism. Regarding the former, the popular media rarely look closely at or explain the research methods when reporting the “latest scientific findings” on the topic of the day.

With respect to altruism, I wonder how much of the affect relates to the person’s pre-existing sense of values. In Ali’s example above, Sally the organic apple purchaser’s sense of goodness is tied to the purchase and eventual consumption of the apple, hence she won’t share. But if her ethical core was deeper, like St. Francis who literally gave the clothes off his back to someone who was in need, then there might be less attraction to the reflected goodness of the organic apple.

Regarding the study itself, I always wonder how representative college students are as test subjects.

Anyway, great post.

Allyson Green February 28, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Good point about pre-existing values! As far as I can tell, the researchers only tested how desirable participants felt the different types of food were before starting the research but did not do a pre-test of values to make sure their research groups shared the same baseline level of altruism to begin with. Maybe the comfort and control food groups were somehow randomly assigned all the St. Francises of the university!

Andrew Ekstrom February 26, 2013 at 6:04 pm

I think you identified why it is important to take a lot of different stat classes. Not just the one or two required for your degree. Anytime you reduce the comparison to Group A vs Group B, you assume that every other factor that has an effect is equally distributed among the groups. Since this is never true, you end up with garbage studies “showing” garbage results. You confound truth with malarkey to create a story worthy the Weekly World News or Faux, I mean Fox News;-)

Good Job!

Allyson Green February 28, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Research methods classes are really helpful as well, especially outside of our fields of study! I got a lot of insights form this post from a class about research methods in studying behavior and the environment. It’s funny (maybe “worrisome” is a better word?) how headlines really do help spread the message with studies like these even when the headlines misrepresent the actual findings!

Gordon Hassing March 5, 2013 at 9:42 am

Very well done. This analysis applies in so many directions besides the difficult social science area. For instance, it’s been true for a long time in QA systems. The difference between precision and accuracy of measurement is important, but most key is applicability of the test to what is to be controlled. In your example, it is the applicability that is also key, i.e. how much extrapolation can be done. Nice piece of writing!

Allyson Green March 5, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Thank you! Yeah, applicability is always something I struggle with in looking at all kinds of studies. As far as I know (share any insights you have if I’m wrong here!), we don’t always have hard and fast lines to use in deciding whether a study/measurement/test/etc is definitely or definitely not applicable in other settings. Oh, the joys of science!

Heather Bray March 26, 2013 at 11:40 pm

Hi Allyson

I’m researching ethical food choices and I found a link to your post after finding this article on Scopus (how cool!). Interestingly, I also teach into a Communicating Science course here where we had/have students blogging. Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for the post!

Allyson Green March 26, 2013 at 11:58 pm

Thanks so much for reading, Heather! I don’t even know what Scopus is… but now I need to find out! So cool to hear that you’re doing similar work with your students. Blogging really is good practice for communicating science. Sometimes you get immediate feedback as to whether or not your communicating was effective or not…which can be challenging… but a good learning experience :)

Where are your students’ blogs posted? I’d love to read them if they’re public (and I’m sure you could find many other willing audience members on here as well!).

Organic Food April 3, 2013 at 7:05 am

Organic food do have health benefits, chemically enhanced food product may not cause cancer but they are definitely not good for health.

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