Table of Contents
Lust, greed, gluttony, anger, sloth, envy and pride. The seven deadly sins are recognized as an integral part of the Christian (and especially the Catholic) belief system, and of Western culture more generally. Contrary to what many believe, though, the seven deadly sins did not make their first appearance in the Bible, but in the commentaries of Christian authorities in the early Middle Ages between the 4th and 6th centuries AD (loc. 2281). Equally unknown is that when the seven sins did arrive on the scene, they were meant primarily as a guide to monks in how they should conduct themselves in order to make monastic living as harmonious and holy as possible (loc. 60).
Despite their late arrival in the annals of Christian belief, though—and despite the somewhat niche audience that they were originally intended for—the seven deadly sins have since developed into an important component of the Christian faith. In fact, the influence of the seven deadly sins in Western culture extends well beyond the Christian realm. Indeed, even the atheistic among us are likely to regard the seven characteristics perhaps not as sins, but at the very least as character flaws, or vices.
Nevertheless, despite the near universal acknowledgement of the reproachfulness of the seven deadly sins, the psychologist Simon Laham takes a very different approach to these so-called sins in his new book “The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good for You)”. Indeed, as the title suggests, Laham maintains that the seven deadly sins are not nearly as bad as they are cracked up to be, and in fact the author argues that much good can come of them, so long as they are approached in the right way.
Laham tackles each sin in order, awarding each a separate chapter. As a general rule, each chapter begins with an explanation of the sin as it was originally conceived, and why it was considered to be a sin (though there are chapters where the author stints in this regard, or leaves such a discussion out altogether, and in these cases it is sorely missed). Following this, we are apprised of how the characteristic, or, in some cases the emotion, that is represented by each sin is regarded by modern psychology. Included here is an account of why each characteristic is thought to have evolved in our species in the first place (though again, the author is sometimes remiss in providing such an explanation, much to the chagrin of the interested reader).
From here, Laham takes the reader through numerous lab and field experiments to demonstrate that the characteristic or emotion in question can indeed lead to positive consequences. For instance, lust can trigger us to be more helpful and brave; gluttony can help us focus on the aesthetic experience of eating (which can lead to an enhancement of the culinary experience itself); greed can make us more persistent and self-sufficient; anger can motivate us to overcome the obstacles that we face, and also prompt us to confront moral transgressors (to the betterment of society); envy can motivate us to better ourselves; sloth can allow us think more efficiently, and also prompt us to be more helpful towards others; pride can make us more competent and work harder, and also give us more self-esteem.
Though the author’s main point is to outline the positive aspects of the seven deadly sins, he does acknowledge that, when approached in the wrong kind of way, they can indeed backfire on us (though again, the author could afford to go into much more detail here than he does on many occasions).
What follows is a full executive summary of The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good For You) by Simon Laham.
Above is the most famous painting of the seven deadly sins: Hieronymus Bosch’s rendering (circa 1500 A.D.) entitled The Seven Deadly Sins and the Last Four Things (the last four things are ‘The Death of the Sinner’, ‘Judgement’, ‘Hell’ and ‘Glory’). The sins, beginning at the bottom and proceeding clockwise, are wrath, envy, greed, gluttony, sloth, lust and pride. (Click on the image for a better view. You can also zoom in on the image from there).
*A close-up of the frame that corresponds to each sin will be available at the front of each section below. (Again you can get a larger image of each picture by clicking on it).
Our first stop on the road to Catholic hell, and psychological bliss, is lust. As you may have guessed, lust is not the scientific term for the phenomenon. As Laham explains, psychologists speak of lust as the “activation of the sexual behavioural system” (loc. 133). In other words, it is sexual desire—but we, like the author, will use the more colloquial ‘lust’ throughout. As anyone who has experienced sexual desire will know, it consists of a “complex of physiological reactions, cognitive and emotional responses, and behavioural changes” (loc. 138). That is, it messes with our bodies, minds, emotions and behaviour in particular ways.
As seems clear enough, lust evolved in our species (as in all other sexual animals) as a mechanism to help us pass on our genes to the next generation (loc. 38). As in those organism that were genetically more enticed by sex sought more of it, had more of it, and hence had more offspring with the same genetic disposition. Not that we have sex only to pass our genes on to the next generation. Indeed, a recent survey identified no less than “237 reasons why men and women have sex. These include being drunk, wanting to get a promotion, celebrating a special occasion, and wanting to commune with God, as well as the more mundane wanting to feel loved and simply being horny” (loc. 38).
Since lust makes us desire sex, it also changes our mind-set in certain ways, and makes us behave in certain ways that are likely to increase our chances of getting sex. And while some of these changes may be negative, Laham maintains (and this is his entire point) that many of these changes can be good for us, and make us better people.
Now, we are not always (or even most often) conscious of the way that our mind-set and behaviour changes when we are lusty (loc. 172). For instance, subjects in whom lust is induced (such as by having them watch a romantic, sexy film about an attractive couple on their first date [loc. 237], or even having them play with themselves [loc. 416]) unconsciously find other people of the opposite sex more attractive in general, and pay closer attention to the physically attractive (loc. 247)—both things that are likely to increase our chances of getting sex in the long (or short) run. Also, when men are primed for sex they read more sexual intent on the faces of the physically attractive (loc. 243) (never hurts to be delusionally over-confident, eh boys?).
Now, the object of our desire is most often (though not always) a member of the opposite sex. As such, one of the best ways to increase the likelihood of attaining our goal here is to behave in ways that will attract these people to us. And this can often induce more noble behaviour in us.
As it turns out, there are many similarities between the sexes in what they find attractive in the opposite sex, but there are also some significant differences here. For instance both men and women tend to be attracted to members of the opposite sex that are agreeable and helpful; however, women also tend to value men that display qualities that are not always entirely consistent with agreeableness and helpfulness, such as leadership and prestige (loc. 362-72). Just as we would expect, when women are made to feel sexy they are more amenable to behaving in a helpful way (loc. 362) (such as by expressing a greater willingness to donate to a charity [loc. 350]). On the other hand, lusty men are also more likely to exhibit a willingness to express helpful behaviour, but only when this allows them to display other qualities such as leadership, prestige and heroism (loc. 367) (such as by distracting an angry bear who is attacking a stranger, or giving a speech to a hostile crowd for a good cause [loc. 356]). Insofar as the world could always use a little more helpfulness, and even bravery and heroism, then yes, lust indeed must be considered a good thing on this count.
Other beneficial mind-sets and behaviours that lust tends to induce in both sexes include an increase in creativity (loc. 476), and analytical thought (loc. 297-302) and, of particular interest, a greater willingness to engage in positive relationship behaviours, such as making sacrifices for one’s significant other (loc. 391), a greater willingness to share information about oneself with a partner (loc. 391), and a greater willingness to engage in constructive resolution strategies (loc. 396). As Laham explains, “essentially what we have here is lust triggering what are traditionally considered love-related thoughts: sharing, intimacy, and so on” (loc. 396). It appears that an awareness that one’s sex life depends on harmony in one’s intimate relationships is a good motivator for behaviours that lead to such harmony (and particularly when one is feeling a little frisky [loc. 396]), and that can’t be a bad thing either.
Of course, behaviours that increase our chances of getting sex (or that increase our pleasure in having sex) are not always squeaky clean. And men appear to be the biggest culprits here. For instance, lusty men evince a greater willingness to resort to such measures as drugging a potential sex partner (loc. 425), and of having sex without a condom (loc. 425).
Now, as Laham himself hints at (loc. 491), the major reason why lust is considered a sin is because it tends to lead to other ungodly behaviour, such as masturbation, pre-marital sex, non-procreative sex, extra-marital sex, and even rape. While many of us no longer consider the first three to be particularly problematic, most of us still agree that the latter two (and particularly the last) are real issues. However, the author avoids these issues here (loc. 485-91), and his discussion of lust is worse off for it (and even a little dishonest, in my opinion).
The way that most of us conceive of gluttony nowadays is as straightforward over-eating, or, closely related to this, eating an excessively unhealthy diet, such as one consisting primarily of “burgers, fries and double-fudge ice cream sundaes” (p. 521). Both of these approaches to food are connected by way of being associated with obesity, and indeed, as Laham points out, all are connected in our minds, and all are considered to be morally reproachful: “the overweight are judged to be morally corrupt consumers of toxic junk, lazy and lacking in self-discipline” (loc. 521). When it comes to this kind of gluttony, America reigns supreme, as the US outranks all others in terms of fast food consumption, portion sizes, and obesity (loc. 509).
*For prospective buyers: To get a good indication of how this (and other) articles look before purchasing, I’ve made several of my past articles available for free. Each of my articles follows the same form and is similar in length (15-20 pages). The free articles are available here: Free Articles