The deadly sins

Christian Jarrett examines the relevance of the idea of sin to modern life, and introduces a special ‘sin week’ on the Society’s Research Digest blog at

The economy crippled by bankers’ avarice. Tiger Woods’ career sidelined after he played away. Sixty per cent of us predicted to be obese by 2050. Greed, Lust and Gluttony.
Twelve people shot dead in Cumbria last June. A Korean baby left to starve to death last March as her parents browsed the internet. Pop superstar George Michael jailed for driving while high on drugs: ‘I am sorry that my pride has prevented me from seeking help before now,’ he said. Wrath, Sloth and Pride.
What about Envy? Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, recently extended his 515ft yacht by a few more feet ensuring its length exceeds that of the boat owned by Russian billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich.
It seems the Seven Deadly Sins are as relevant today as when Pope Gregory the Great listed them in the late sixth century. So what does contemporary psychological science have to say about these ancient vices?
Envy, pride and wrath are today recognised as emotions with evolutionarily adaptive functions. Envy and pride propel us to seek status and resources, whilst gluttony, lust and greed are related to the unconstrained consumption of food, sex and power. Wrath ensues if our pursuit of any of these ends is thwarted or threatened. Meanwhile, sloth is like the mirror-opposite of the other sins – a lack of motivation and drive. A unifying theme underlying all the sins is insufficient self-control, a failure to rein in the animal within.

It may be ugly, but the dogged pursuit of wealth and power is part of human nature. ‘Across cultures, research has revealed about a dozen different kinds of values and goals that all people prioritise to one extent or another,’ says social-personality psychologist Tim Kasser of Knox College, Illinois. ‘Among these are values for self-enhancement and materialism, which include specific aims for power, wealth, money, status and image.’ According to Kasser, it’s when people particularly prioritise these values that they are likely to behave in a greedy fashion. For example, he says: ‘People who claim that materialistic goals are important compete rather than cooperate, endorse a Machiavellian stance towards interpersonal relationships, and care less about other people’s inner experience.’
Materialistic values are fostered by living in a competitive culture that inculcates the idea that wealth and status are necessary to be happy. A revealing 2009 survey by Lara Aknin of hundreds of North Americans found that they massively underestimated the happiness of people on lower levels of income than their own. Kathleen Vohs at Carlson School of Management has shown that the mere thought of money (primed through the unscrambling of money-related sentences) led people to be more selfish and to opt to give less money to charity. More recently, research showed that the sight of money reduced the time people spent savouring a chunk of chocolate.
Another way that materialistic values are triggered is through psychological insecurity. ‘Growing up poor or with non-nurturant mothers conduces toward such values,’ says Kasser. ‘And one study showed that thinking about one’s own death – the ultimate in insecurity for many – increased materialistic values and how greedily people behaved in a game.’
Logic suggests that greed can be tackled by confronting its two main causes: competitive and materialistic cultures and psychological insecurity. According to Kasser, we can also seek to promote those values that research has shown oppose materialism and self-enhancement. ‘These values, which focus on aims such as growing as a person, love and friendship, and benefiting the community,’ he says, ‘can act as a counter-weight to greed, and are known to promote more helpful behaviours in and of themselves.’

If greed motivates us to obtain wealth and status, then envy is the emotion that’s triggered when another person achieves what we want, and we think they don’t quite deserve it. ‘Envy, when it is not in its benign form [akin to admiration], occurs when we lack another’s superior quality, achievement or possession, and either desire it or wish that the other lacked it,’ says Richard Smith at the University of Kentucky, the author of Envy: Theory and Research. ‘When we envy, we feel inferior, longing, resentment, and ill-will toward the advantaged person.’ This latter, hostile feature of envy is particularly key to the emotion. The envious person hopes for those they envy to lose their status or wealth and, if that happens, envy gives way to schadenfreude.
It’s important to distinguish envy from the related but separate emotion of jealousy. ‘Jealousy occurs when a person fears losing an important relationship with another person (or object) to a rival,’ says Smith. ‘When we feel jealous, we feel fear and anxiety about a possible loss, and suspiciousness and anger over possible betrayal.’ Apart from their obvious semantic similarities, envy and jealousy are easily confused because it is precisely those people we envy who are most likely to attract the attentions of the individuals we fear losing.
Studies have uncovered some of the factors involved in the provocation of envy. Similarity is key. Although we may have principled objections, few of us are personally affronted by the riches and achievements of, say, the royal family, but if a close colleague, friend or neighbour gains the promotion or sports car we always wanted, well then envy is likely to follow. John Schaubroeck and Simon Lam showed this similarity principle at play in a 2004 field study in which unpromoted tellers at a Hong Kong bank were most envious of promoted colleagues who they’d earlier rated as more similar to themselves. More envious employees also performed better over the next five months, supporting the idea that envy has an adaptive function.
Other important factors in envy are control and self-relevance. It’s when the coveted achievements or possessions of another feel as if they are beyond our reach and relevant to our own standing, that we are most likely to feel envious. Consider a 1997 study by Penelope Lockwood and Ziva Kunda at the University of Waterloo. They presented undergrads with a profile of a ‘superstar’ graduate. For undergrads on their first year, who still had time to scale such scholarly heights, the case-study was inspiring, but for final-year undergrads, for whom their academic fate was largely sealed, the high-flying graduate provoked feelings of inadequacy – a catalyst for envy.
As for coping with envy, a 1988 study based on a survey of Psychology Today readers suggested that attempts to ignore the object of envy and to focus on one’s own goals helped reduce envy, whilst self-bolstering did not. However, once envy had kicked in, self-bolstering (e.g. reminding yourself of your good qualities) was associated with an envious person experiencing fewer negative feelings.

Whereas the success and status of others can provoke envy, pride is what we feel when the success and status are our own. Pride, like envy is a human universal, and is another of the sins considered by psychology to be an emotion. Darwin categorised it alongside states such as vanity and suspicion as a ‘complex emotion’. He also anticipated contemporary research showing that the expression of pride – head held high, arms raised – is recognised universally across cultures and by children as young as four. In 2008 Jessica Tracy at the University of British Columbia and David Matsumoto at San Francisco State University studied congenitally blind Olympic judo competitors and found that they too showed pride in this way, even though they can’t ever have seen a pride display by anyone else.
So what is pride for? Whereas envy, triggered by the success of others, is aversive, pride is rewarding and thereby encourages us to persevere for long-term gain – in a sense, helping to overcome sloth.
In turn, the expression of pride signals to others that we are deserving of status. Lisa Williams and David DeSteno at Northeastern University tested this idea in a 2009 study in which they provoked pride in participants by giving them false, overwhelmingly positive feedback on their performance at a mental rotation exercise. In a subsequent group version of the task, participants who felt more pride (thanks to the earlier feedback) were rated as more liked by other group members.
Further evidence for the powerful link between pride and impressions of status comes from a 2009 study by Jessica Tracy and Azim Shariff, which used the Implicit Association Test to show that people subconsciously associate pictures of people displaying pride, more than other emotions, with words signifying high status. A further study by Tracy that’s in press showed that people perceive a person displaying pride as high status, even when that perception is incongruous with contextual cues, such as that the person is homeless. Similarly, participants were more likely to hire fictional job candidates who displayed pride as opposed to shame, even if the latter had stronger CVs.
So why is pride considered a sin? Psychologists distinguish between authentic pride, which tends to follow success which a person attributes to their own effort, and hubristic pride, which usually follows success attributed to ability. It’s the hubristic variety that most likely led to pride being seen as a sin. ‘Hubristic pride seems to be “bad for people” in a number of ways,’ says Tracy. ‘It’s associated with all kinds of problematic personality traits – such as aggression, antisocial behaviour, anxiety, shame and narcissism. In a recent series of studies, we found that the experience of hubristic pride directly promotes prejudice against out-group members. People high in hubristic pride also tend not to be well liked by others.’ One theory is that hubristic pride may have evolved as a way to cheat others into thinking you’re deserving of status, without the need for long-term effort and genuine achievement.
Tracy says that although hubristic pride can be pleasurable because it’s associated with positive feelings about the self, it tends to stem from a sense of insecurity or defensiveness. ‘If people can experience authentic pride instead – perhaps by focusing on genuine, specific accomplishments – they are likely to be better off,’ she says. ‘Authentic pride is still a highly pleasurable experience, and is associated with a range of adaptive and prosocial personality traits and behaviours. In fact, the experience of authentic pride directly promotes empathy for out-group members and consequently out-group favouritism (the reverse of prejudice).’

Anger is one the core emotions alongside sadness, fear, disgust and happiness. Its survival function is clear. When a threat to ourselves or our kin is perceived, the activity of the sympathetic nervous system intensifies, the heart races, adrenaline flows, as the body prepares to confront the situation. Anger can be triggered by the other sins, such as intense envy and threatened pride.
The problem today is that anger seems to be provoked all too easily – road rage, air rage, computer rage are part of modern life. In 2008 the Mental Health Foundation published a report ‘Boiling Point’ calling attention to the links between anger and poor mental and physical health (including heart disease and depression). The report also included a survey that suggested most people believe anger is on the rise.
‘Anger is strange,’ says Bill Winogron, a clinical psychologist and co-author of CALM – an anger management intervention used in UK and Canadian prisons (see ‘It is very commonly experienced, and disturbs interpersonal relations more than any other emotion. And yet it has no diagnostic code in the mental health “bible”, and receives a small fraction of the research attention of anxiety and depression. Most who experience it don’t want to change it, yet anger episodes mostly target the angry person’s loved ones in their homes.’
Winogron, who now works for the S4Potential consultancy, says that interventions like CALM, which are based on cognitive-behavioural principles, work well. These involve learning how to reduce bodily arousal, social skills like assertiveness and, ‘most importantly of all, changing the thoughts and beliefs that focus on perceiving threat, evaluating and blaming others, the need to oppose and aggress against perceived sources of threat, and revenge.’ However, Winogron notes that psychology still has much to learn about problem anger, including: ‘factors that aid or block anger’s conversion to aggression, the best evidence-based treatments [a limitation of the existing evidence base is that it’s largely based on volunteer participants], and the role of genetics and other causative factors’.
Anger isn’t all bad. When suitably controlled, there’s evidence that a certain amount of anger can be useful, at least in business contexts. In a 2006 study Marwan Sinaceur and Larissa Tiedens at INSEAD found that students in a role-playing context who’d been trained to feign anger achieved more concessions from their partners. Other research suggests this benefit arises because angry people are construed by others as tough negotiators. However, the effect of anger could depend on the cultural context.
A study published last year by Hajo Adam and colleagues, also at INSEAD, found that expressing anger led to improved negotiation outcomes for participants hailing from a Western American background, but actually backfired when deployed by participants with an East Asian ancestry.

As with anger, the evolutionary function of lust is obvious. Our drive to mate ensures the continuation of the species. As with several of the other sins, lust becomes a problem only when it is unconstrained or aroused by inappropriate targets. In part this is culturally determined. Although monogamy is widely practised, or at least aspired to, in mainstream Western culture, polygamy is also found globally, from Mormon societies in the United States to Islamic nations like Sudan, where it has been actively encouraged by the President as a way to increase the population. Polygamy is also practised by some of our primate cousins, especially the bonobo chimpanzee.
Harder to explain from an evolutionary perspective, perhaps, is why human lust has come to be relatively controlled. Part of the answer comes from the proposal by anthropologist Helen Fisher at Rutgers University and others that lust forms one of three distinct subtypes of reproduction-related emotion, the other two being passionate love (as in ‘being in love’ or infatuated with another), and companionate love. According to this account, lust is the basic driver for seeking sexual gratification, passionate love helps us focus our efforts on pursuing a particular mate, and companionate love encourages long-term bonding, which is beneficial for raising and supporting offspring. Without passionate love to focus our lustful desires, we’d be forever in a spin, pursuing potential mates in all directions. Companionate love, meanwhile, helps shift our priorities from procreation to ensuring the survival of our existing offspring.
‘Lust is associated with who gets to pass on their DNA into tomorrow,’ says Fisher. ‘It leads to eternal life in the sense that you’re spreading your seed on into eternity. So lust is extremely important, and every single culture in the world has rules about who you can and can’t have sex with. In fact, my guess is that this is one of the first rules that humankind developed because it is so important to reproduction and the future.’ How can lust be curtailed? ‘You can castrate a man,’ Fisher observes dryly, ‘which is usually effective.’ In the USA there has also been an increase in Alcoholics Anonymous-style interventions for sex addiction, no doubt in response to the frequent media reports of sex-addicted celebrities. The effectiveness or appropriateness of these groups remains to be seen.

It’s tempting to think the amount that people eat and drink is simply about personal choice. This assumption is reflected in the idea of too much consumption being a sin – gluttony, a woeful lack of temperance born out of poor character. However, psychologists today roundly reject the idea that over-consumption can simply be attributed to
a person’s free choice. In fact, so taboo is any suggestion of a link between obesity and gluttony that one British psychologist we spoke to wished to remain anonymous lest his comments be misinterpreted. ‘Obesity for the vast majority is not a choice and the implicit social discrimination society attributes to obese individuals would challenge any assumption that an individual would choose to achieve a high weight status,’ he said. ‘Gluttony may be a deadly sin, obesity most certainly is not.’
According to modern research the amount we consume is heavily influenced by environmental factors including food availability, price and portion size – collectively known as ‘obesogenic’ factors. In one particularly striking study, Brian Wansink at Cornell University found that people consumed 73 per cent more soup than controls when drinking from bowls that unbeknown to them automatically refilled. And yet these same participants reported afterwards feeling no more sated than controls, nor did they estimate they had consumed any more than the controls estimated they had.
‘Eating behaviour is not a hand-to-mouth pursuit for the modern human,’ says the UK psychologist we consulted. ‘Eating is implicitly and explicitly intertwined with cognitive, social, individual, developmental and biological perspectives and legitimate explanations. Explanations for obesity must appreciate the quality, quantity and potential availability of particular foods in various yet individually specific environments, matched with the individual's perceptions of appropriateness, time availability, hunger levels and social pressures.’
Indeed, the influence of social pressures on weight gain was revealed by a 2007 study by James Fowler at the University of California in San Diego and Nicholas Christakis at the Harvard Medical School. They used longitudinal data on obesity and relationships from 12,000 people collected since 1971 as part of the Framingham Heart Study.
This showed that if a participant’s friend became obese over a given two- to four-year phase of the study, that same participant was subsequently 57 per cent more likely to themselves become obese over the ensuing study phase. These effects were observed regardless of spatial proximity suggesting the effect has to do with beliefs about what body weight (and presumably eating habits too) is considered normal and acceptable in different social circles.
Despite these powerful environmental and social influences, surely some factors related to over-consumption reside in the individual? Neuroscientists have identified brain differences in those who persistently over-eat, including in the dopamine pathways implicated in drug addiction. For example, research by Gene-Jack Wang, chair of the medical department at the US Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, has shown that people who are obese have reduced dopamine receptors (the D2 variety) in the forebrain, paired with enhanced activity in the parts of the brain that represent the mouth and tongue.
One theory is that the lack of dopamine receptors could lead obese people to crave compensation for their underactive reward circuits, whilst the enhanced activity in mouth and tongue regions suggests that, for obese people, food may be a particularly powerful source of reward. However, it’s important to consider that the causal direction could work backwards – perhaps over-eating leads to changes in dopamine pathways and alters somatotopic representation of the mouth and tongue. Other obesity experts point to the role played by genes. For example, a study published late in 2010 showed that mice with two copies of the FTO gene (associated with obesity in humans) ate more, which caused them to put on more weight.


Unlike the other sins, which are largely about excess and disinhibition, sloth reflects a lack of motivation, either intrinsic, extrinsic, or both. Psychologists have been divided as to how to distinguish between these two aspects. One account, which can be traced back to Plato, states that intrinsic motivation is driven by the needs of the mind, whilst extrinsic motivation is driven by the needs of the body. Another argues that intrinsic motivation is when we do something because it’s inherently enjoyable, whereas extrinsic motivation is when we do something to obtain some other reward. Either way, laziness can be seen as a lack of drive to obtain a potential reward.
Another way to think about laziness is as ‘task avoidance’. Rather than failing to respond to a potential reward, task avoidance can be triggered by a fear of failure, perhaps caused by an unrealistic desire for perfectionism. Task avoidance is a habit with long-term repercussions. A 2009 study by Katariina Salmela-Aro and her colleagues at the University of Jyväskylä found that students who avoided work tasks while at university were more likely to be disengaged from their career and suffering burnout 17 years later. ‘Those who avoid work have often had previous negative experiences in similar issues they are facing and thus they fear they will again fail rather than succeed, and then it is a self-fulfilling circle,’ says Salmela-Aro. ‘If you fear you will fail, you start to avoid and thus it easily leads to failure and negative experiences, again kind of a negative circle.’
Closely related to laziness is idleness – doing nothing. Psychologists at the University of Chicago claimed in 2010 that we’ve inherited an instinct for idleness because our ancestors had to be careful to conserve their energy. Even though we’re happier when we’re busy, Christopher Hsee and his colleagues said the idleness instinct takes over unless we have a reason not to do nothing. In fact, they even suggested governments give serious consideration to interventions such as ordering the building of pointless bridges, purely as way to lure people out of their idle stupors.
Hsee’s team made their claims after a series of lab studies, including one showing that participants were happier if they took a 15-minute walk to return a questionnaire than if they just handed it in as they left the room. The trouble is, given the choice, most participants opted for the lazier return point – it was only when they were given a specious excuse (the reward of a different, though no more attractive, chocolate bar at the more distant location) that they took the walk.
‘People dread idleness, yet without a reason to be busy, they would choose idleness over busyness and be unhappy,’ says Hsee. ‘However, people will engage in activity and be busy and happy if they have a reason for doing the activity, even if the reason is specious. Sometimes, people will be happier even if they are forced to be busy rather than idle.’ Hsee notes, however, that idleness is not the same as laziness. ‘Laziness results from lack of motivation to work,’ he says, ‘whereas idleness occurs because the person has nothing to do.’

The original deadly sins were inspired by humankind’s perpetual struggle to rise above animalistic instincts and rein in the emotions. It’s the occasional success at doing this that makes us human. To postpone gratification today for tomorrow’s greater reward. To sacrifice our own needs for the good of others. It’s our frequent inability to achieve this level of control that makes the sins as relevant today as they ever were.
Part of the reason we’re so prone to sin probably has to do with our tendency to underestimate the strength of our primal drives when we’re sated, in what psychologists call a ‘cold state’. Loran Nordgren at the Kellogg School of Management showed this in a series of studies in 2009. For example, faced with the challenge of keeping a chocolate bar for a week without eating it (with the snack bar plus cash as a reward), students who’d just eaten tended to make the mistake of picking their favourite snack bar. Of course, this ramped up the temptation and they ended up being less successful at the task than hungry students who took the same challenge, and who, conscious at the time of their gluttonous drives, wisely chose a less tempting snack bar.
‘In my view self-control is the “master virtue” underlying almost all others,’ says Roy Baumeister at Florida State University, an expert on self-control and the author of Your Own Worst Enemy: Understanding the Paradox of Self-Defeating Behavior. ‘Each of the deadly sins can be seen as a failure or breakdown of self-control.’
Baumeister’s research has shown that self-restraint is like a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it gets. But it’s also a finite resource. On any given day, if you exert self-control in one situation you’ll have less left over to triumph over temptation later on.
‘Human beings are animals who have managed to create a new kind of social system,’ says Baumeister. ‘The system (culture) requires them to overcome some of their natural, animal habits, inclinations, and tendencies, so as to follow the rules that enable the system to make life better for everyone. Self-control is a vital faculty for enabling them to accomplish this.’

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