Composting Food Waste and Moral Guilt: The Limited Pool of Worry

By Hailey Grohman

We all naturally have an aspect of the food system that we care most about, whether that be working landscapes, sustainable agriculture, fair trade, or some other subset of the field. However, the reason for our limited field of focus may actually be psychological. We may only be capable of caring about one issue, and completing one action, at a time.

In a fascinating article in New Food Economy titled, “Your Can’t Compost Your Food Waste and Eat it, Too,” author Joe Fassler outlines findings from an Ohio State study on composting and the passing-off of moral responsibility when subjects were faced with the issue of food waste.

Photo: US Department of Agriculture

Fassler summarizes the study and its implications comprehensively (basically, participants were more likely to waste food if told it would be composted rather than thrown out). Perhaps the most interesting facet of the research is its demonstration of the “single action bias,” a subset of what researchers call the “limited pool of worry” when it comes to grappling with complex problems like climate change or food waste. Both psychological concepts point toward a limit to how much humans can realistically care about, or do something about, an issue.

It makes logical sense that our brains can only process and care about so much at one time, but it certainly doesn’t bode well for the pressing, large-scale global issues that we face today. Fassler asks whether organizations combating food waste should “keep quiet” about the work they do, so consumers will still feel morally obligated to do their part, or whether good old fashioned guilt is the way to go to make change.

It may be that food waste and other complex food systems issues have something to learn from other fields whose problems face these same psychological biases. The answer cannot simply be to ask consumers to care more about an issue, but perhaps the way that researchers and organizations present problems could subvert some of these mental barriers.

Read the New Food Economy story here.

-Hailey Grohman is a recent graduate of the UVM Food Systems program. Her research interests include food communications and media.

Posted in: Social
Tags: , .