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Replication study fails to find evidence that organic food turns you into a jerk

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Research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science has failed to replicate a highly-publicized study that found being exposed to organic food made people more judgmental and less helpful.

The original study exposed 62 undergraduate students to pictures of food from one of the following categories: organic foods with organic food labels (apple, spinach, tomato, and carrot), comfort foods with no labels (ice cream, cookie, chocolate, and brownie), or control foods with no labels. After viewing and rating the desirability of the food items, the students then filled out a survey about moral transgressions. Finally, the students were told “that another professor from another department is also conducting research and really needs volunteers.”

The study, conducted by Kendall J. Eskine of Loyola University New Orleans, found that students who had been exposed to pictures of organic foods were less likely to offer to volunteer for another study. They also judged moral transgressions as being worse compared to students who viewed nonorganic foods.

“The results could have turned out either way, but I was honestly hedging my bets on the moral licensing approach, according to which people feel licensed to act less ethically when their moral identities are made salient,” Eskine explained in a news release published by Loyola University New Orleans. “Organic foods, like other green products, seem to help people affirm their moral identities, thus generating counterintuitive behaviors.”

The study, titled “Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments,” was published ahead of print in Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2012. Soon, the Internet was buzzing with headlines like “Does Organic Food Turn You into a Jerk? Short answer: yes.”

In three experiments, Eileen Moery and Robert J. Calin-Jageman of Dominican University in Illinois tried to replicate Eskine’s findings. The researchers were able to find statistically significant differences between those who were exposed to organic foods and those who were not. However, the effect sizes — a statistic that indicates the magnitude of differences between groups — were much smaller than reported in Eskine’s original study.

In all three experiments, they found that exposure to organic food had little effect on participants’ moral judgments.

“Overall, our conclusion is that organic food exposure has much less impact on moral reasoning than found by Eskine, potentially down to no effect at all. It is not clear why the original research reached such a different outcome,” Moery and Calin-Jageman wrote in their study.

“There does seem, however, to be a clear lesson here related to research dissemination. The credulous public response that followed the publication of Eskine (2013) indicates the better need for all parties in the dissemination process to more clearly communicate the level of uncertainty associated with a scientific study.”

The researchers also published all their raw data on the Open Science Framework website.