Confusing Virtues: People Who Like a Food's Politics Think It Has Fewer Calories

01/13/2012 02:12 pm ET | Updated Mar 14, 2012

Anything "organic" or "low-fat" must be good for you, right? Ask people how fattening those organic chocolate-covered peanuts are, and they'll guess a lower number than they did for the non-organic version. They'll also eat more than they would have otherwise. The same goes for "low-fat" products. The effect has been called the "health halo" and it's pretty well-documented. But now it seems health halo may be too narrow a term: This study hints that any association with virtue makes a food feel healthier. In two clever experiments, people who thought that a company engaged in "fair trade" saw its chocolate as less fattening than did people who didn't know that about the company.

In one experiment, Jonathon P. Schuldt of California State University at Northridge and his co-authors signed up 56 people through Amazon's Mechanical Turk website and paid them each a nickel to estimate how the number of calories in a Petersen's chocolate bar compared to other brands. Twenty-nine people simply read that Petersen's, a small (and fictional) company, made really good chocolate. The other 27 learned, in addition, that Petersen's was a "fair trade" company -- and those people guessed a significantly lower number of calories for the Petersen's product.

That result doesn't close the case, as the authors note in their paper, published online this month in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Maybe "fair trade" can be taken to imply fair dealing for customers as well as suppliers. And anyway, what entitles the psychologists to assume that people are all alike? If you approve of the fair trade movement, maybe there is a halo effect around fair trade products. But what if you think squeezing cocoa farmers is an admirable exercise in maximizing shareholder value for Petersen's stockholders? (Such people exist, of course, and a number of them are running for President.) If you don't see the halo in one domain, you're unlikely to see it in the other.

To address these and other issues, Schuldt et al. employed a second, more rigorous experiment. They asked 192 University of Michigan students to read the description of that yummy Petersen's chocolate, which, for everyone, included that same blather about hand-crafting and rigorous testing. The sample was divided into three groups: One received no further information about Petersen's. Another set read the bit about how Petersen's "pays its cocoa farmers 50% more than the standard market price for cocoa, to ensure that the farmers receive a fair wage for their efforts." Others, in contrast, read that Petersen was an almost comically nasty company that paid lousy wages, resisted building schools and even fought to preserve child labor on West African cocoa farms.

All the readers also completed a questionnaire to assess how much they cared about ethical food production (one question, for instance, if, and how much, they agreed with the statement: "It is important that the food I eat on a typical day comes from a country in which human rights are not violated").

Result: As the researchers expected, information about Petersen's "fair trade" practices made people more likely to see their candy as low-calorie if those people cared about fair trade. The higher people scored on a measure of their concern for the issue, the less fattening they perceived the fair-trade chocolate to be, and the more calories they perceived in the non-fair-trade version.

That result jibes with work by Dan Kahan at Yale Law School, which showed that people will accept the scientific authority of a credentialed expert who confirms their values, but will say there's something fishy and untrustworthy about the exact same expert if his science contradicts their beliefs. (I've written about the study here and a pdf of the paper is here.) In both studies, ideological commitment changes perception of the facts, without conscious awareness.

Ideology is supposed to be the result of conscious, rational reflection about facts and principles. So you would think that having an ideology would engage the conscious, rational mind when a relevant issue comes up. But as I read Schuldt et al., they found instead that ideological commitment shuts down the conscious mind. Kahan et al. did too. In the Kahan study, people discounted the credentials and arguments of an expert, rather than weighing them. In the Schuldt experiments, they saw food as nutritionally better if it was ideologically closer to them (without pausing to reason out the fact that a gram of milk chocolate has the same effect on you regardless of how much fattier other chocolates are, or how well the cows were treated). In the rationalist picture of the mind, our values guide our thinking, which then guide our actions. But it may be more accurate to say that our values block our thinking, letting unconscious processes run the show.

Cross-posted at Mind Matters at