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How Whole Foods Makes Misanthropes

March 10, 2010

Newsweek reports about a behavioural study from the University of Toronto in which a group of 156 students have participated in two 2-step experiments looking for a virtuousness-effect of eco-friendly consumer behaviour. In the first experiment one group browsed through green-product online stores, while the control group just looked at normal online stores. Both groups subsequently participated in a game in which they could offer more or less generous split-offs of a given (small) sum of money. If the split-off was accepted by their respective partner, both received the agreed-upon pay-off. If it was rejected by the respective partner, both received nothing.

People who had been looking at the green online stores offered more generous pay-offs than those of the control group. The scientists’ explanation: it’s a priming effect. In my words: just looking at green products reminds you of how you should be a “virtuous” person (but that you actually aren’t) and thus you act a little more virtuous than when that eco-friendly moral pressure is not on your mind.

The second experiment is a little more interesting. The experimental group was given $25 and sent out to spend it on green products. The control group was given the same amount of money but could spend it in a conventional store. Again, in the second step, both groups participated in the pay-off game as before. It turned out that, then, the “green group” behaved less altruistically than the control group and offered less money than the others. Furthermore, when given a chance to cheat and lie about it in order receive a bigger pay-off, “green group” members were more likely to use that opportunity than the control group.

The scientists who made the experiments explain that second phenomenon by saying that the “green group” felt so virtuous after having bought all that eco stuff that they found that they had done their share of good deeds for the day and could behave less selflessly in the following setting.

The French Cowboy would suggest an alternative explanation: the “green group” students were so p*ssed off that they had to buy those sucky green products that they felt they had a right to make less generous offers in the game in order to at least get a little pocket money out of the whole experiment. This holds especially true if they knew that some of the other players (maybe even their respective partners) could spend the $25 on non-green products.

Also, the French Cowboy finds it interesting how the scientists take it for granted that green products are automatically associated with virtuousness – as opposed to, say, being foolish enough to pay for overpriced stuff that, in most cases, isn’t nearly as eco-friendly as advertised. But probably, given that the probands were university students, this assumption is correct in this case.

Either way, a possible conclusion from these experiments is that, if we want more altruism in our society, we may succeed by exposing people more to gentle, subtle reminders that we’re not as green as we should be tsktsktsk. But what we must strictly avoid is that people actually live green lifestyles because that would result in a society of liars and cheaters! It’s like a zero-sum game in which you either pour your virtuousness into green-planet-friendliness or you pour it into being kinder to humans, you can’t have it both. Thinking about it, that actually explains a lot.

H/T Hotair

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