The “Health Halo Effect:” Organic Labels on Food

A couple of days ago I restarted that series on cognitive biases with a post about the Halo Effect. I recently came across a study that applied the Halo Effect, but specifically, to health. The study sought to see whether labeling food organic made folks think that the food was healthier. An excerpt:

115 people were recruited from a local shopping mall in Ithaca, New York to participate in this study. Participants were asked to evaluate 3 pairs of products — 2 yogurts, 2 cookies and 2 potato chip portions. One item from each food pair was labeled “organic,” while the other was labeled “regular.” The trick to this study was: all of the product pairs were organic and identical! Participants were asked to rate the taste and caloric content of each item, and how much they would be willing to pay for the items. A questionnaire also inquired about their environmental and shopping habits. Even though these foods were all the same, the “organic” label greatly influenced people’s perceptions.

It certainly seems like there’s evidence here for the “health halo effect.” Something that I wonder about, though — the placebo effect. I haven’t written about the placebo effect, but I imagine that most of you know what it means: it’s the idea that an inert substance can prove to have an effect on someone’s health. We can apply the placebo effect to situations outside of medicine.

In this instance, we might posit that the people who were eating the food labeled organic believed that it would taste better — and so it did. I don’t think that this hypothesis could be evaluated from the data from this study, but it would be an intriguing follow-up.



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