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A new study says people who use the bags believe they deserve more indulgences.

You try to be a good person by getting a reusable shopping bag, only to discover it’s making you eat like crap.

That’s the connection drawn by Uma Karmarkar and Bryan Bollinger at the business schools of Harvard and Duke, respectively, who claim using canvas tote bags and the like at grocery stores tricks your brain into wanting junk food. The thinking is that people who carry reusable bags feel more principled, and this makes them believe they deserve more BBQ Lays, Double Stuf Oreos, and other indulgences.

Here’s their takeaway, from a press release:

“Grocery store shoppers who bring their own bags are more likely to purchase organic produce and other healthy food. But those same shoppers often feel virtuous, because they are acting in an environmentally responsible way. That feeling easily persuades them that, because they are being good to the environment, they should treat themselves to cookies or potato chips or some other product with lots of fat, salt, or sugar,” write the authors...

Bollinger and Karmarkar, who have a new study in the Journal of Marketing (draft available here), examined loyalty-card data for one California grocery store from 2005 to 2007. Because state markets at the time offered a three-cent credit to people with their own bags, they could tell when somebody had a reusable one or went with store-provided paper and plastic. They also gathered a bunch of people online and walked them through a hypothetical shopping trip, telling some they were using totes and others store bags.

Folks who had reusable bags (real or not) were more likely to purchase organic, nutritious, or “environmentally friendly” eats, they say. The tote crowd also showed a stronger compulsion toward food with lots of fat and sugar, a delicious taste, and low nutritional value. However, people with children were a little less likely to buy organic or junk, which the researchers attribute to balancing “their own purchasing preferences with competing motivations arising from their role as parents.”

Fine, but why does any of this matter? If you’re a grocery-store owner, it could matter a lot: Driving up sales of pricey organic and indulgent items, say Karmarkar and Bollinger, could be as simple as suggesting customers “go green” and bring their own bags.

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