Boston prides itself on being a haven of high-minded thinking—something that’s also made us insufferable.
Life Alive, a vegetarian café in Central Square, takes itself very seriously. The music overhead is New Age and plaintive. Patrons are encouraged to bus their tables themselves, in the community spirit. Locally sourced dishes abound on the menu, among them an entrée called “The Healer.” For $6.79, you can treat yourself to the 12-ounce “Superhero Alive”—a juice concoction with carrot, apple, spirulina, cayenne, and other wholesome ingredients, along with something called “pure water.” The place even has a mission statement, printed right on the menu, in which you’re told that you’re about to have “the profound experience of contributing to personal and planetary wellness as you blissfully nourish yourself.”
You might have a hard time feeling that after you’ve eaten the entrée called “The Alchemist,” which leaves an aftertaste not unlike the backwash from someone’s discarded carrot juice. But the food, of course, isn’t really the point. Or, to put it differently, Life Alive seems interested in food only to the extent that food can be thought of as an ideology. Based on the number of people you’re likely to find standing in line at the place on a typical Saturday afternoon, waiting to buy smoothies that cost almost $10, it’s fair to say there’s no shortage of believers. In fact, the Boston area is full of them.
Life Alive is exactly the sort of place that Kendall Eskine, an assistant professor of psychology at New Orleans’s Loyola University, had in mind when he decided to test what happens to people after they buy green or organic products. The results of his study, published this past summer in Social Psychological & Personality Science, weren’t pretty. It turned out that participants in the study who simply looked at organic food were significantly less willing to devote their time to helping a needy stranger than people who’d been shown, say, cookies or brownies. (Which may explain why you won’t see many Life Alive patrons putting change into the cups of Central Square’s needy strangers after they’ve bought their $10 smoothies.)
Eskine isn’t the only social scientist to have observed this behavior. The results of his study mirror those of another, published in 2010 in Psychological Science, the takeaway from which was that organic-only consumers seem to be more likely to cheat and steal than others. According to this study, consumers who wear a “halo of green consumerism” for some reason feel morally licensed to judge themselves by standards quite different from the ones by which they like to judge others.