I confess it, I am a sinner. I begin most days in a haze of sloth and lust (which, coincidentally, is also how I end most days); gluttony takes hold over breakfast and before I know it I'm well on my way to hell and it's not yet 9 a.m. Pride, lust, gluttony, greed, envy, sloth and anger, the seven deadly sins, these are my daily companions.
And you? Are you a sinner?
The simple fact is that we all sin (or rather 'sin'), and we do it all the time. But fear not: the seven deadly sins aren't as bad for you as you might think.
This is the message of my new book, The Science of Sin [Three Rivers Press, $14.00]. Over the course of seven chapters, I take each of the deadly sins and review classic as well as cutting edge psychological research that highlights the upside of these allegedly mortal vices.
Here is just a taste of some of the benefits of the seven deadly sins:
Pope Gregory the Great, who wrote the definitive list of deadlies, made it near impossible to get any pleasure at all out of eating when he noted five (yes five) ways to sin by gluttony: too greedily, too much, too early, too expensively, and with too much focus on how the food is prepared. Yet in comparison to the calorie-counting dieter, those who happily indulge in food and drink reap a range of benefits. Dieters fair more poorly on so-called executive functioning tasks, which tap the mind's capacity to regulate and control thought and make complex decisions, and having a hit of glucose, the brain's energy source, can protect you from a range of cognitive shortcomings. Perhaps most interestingly, compared to those who are hungry, those who have just eaten are more likely to donate to charity.
Pride sits atop the list of deadly sins; it's an honor that is thoroughly undeserved. Authentic pride - the feeling that comes after a hard-earned success - makes people more likely to persist with difficult tasks and, as a result, achieve further success. The proud tend to lead and are also more liked. Many of pride's boons come through the pride expression - arms akimbo, head tilted back, chest expanded - which tells others that "I'm successful," thus triggering admiration and even further benefits.
At the heart of this deadly sin is what psychologists call upward social comparison - comparing oneself to someone better-off - and there is a lot of research that suggests that such upward comparison can be good for you. Comparing oneself to an inspirational other not only boosts one's mood, but also motivates one to succeed. Research shows, for example, that schoolkids who compare themselves to enviable classmates improve their grades over the course of a school-year. And yet other research shows that encountering a high-achieving other can make one more creative.
The writer Robert Louis Stevenson nicely captured the essence of sloth when he noted that "Idleness so called... does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized." Take that ultimate slothful state, sleep. A good sleep makes you more creative and a better problem-solver. And the good news is that many of the benefits of sleep also hold for short naps. Slothful thinking also has it's pros. So-called "unconscious thought," in which part of the brain is non-consciously working on a task while our conscious attention is directed elsewhere, often leads to more optimal decision making. And even walking more slowly has unexpected benefits: research shows that the more slowly a city's inhabitants walk, the more helpful they are!
Anger gets a bad rap because it is often linked to violence. However, research shows that violence follows anger only rarely. Strip the violent gloss from this deadly sin and you'll discover a highly functional emotion. People feel anger either when they come across an obstacle to a goal or when they witness an injustice. And in both cases, the feeling of anger triggers a set of adaptive responses. Anger induces a sense of control and a focus on rewards, which prompts people to persist in the face of obstacles; it also triggers a motivation to punish perpetrators of injustice, in an attempt to restore social harmony. Expressing anger also seems to pay. Anger expressions (at least in men) signal competence and toughness which makes angry negotiators more likely to secure favorable outcomes.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the primary function of lust is to get people into bed. And the lustful mindset is exquisitely designed to do so. When we are aroused we pay attractive others more attention, see potential mates as better-looking and even read sexual intent into others' faces where none exists. However, some of the most interesting upsides of lust are less obvious. In the right circumstances, lust can make people more helpful and more likely to go along with the crowd. Having sex on the brain can even change the way we solve problems. Lust triggers a detail-focused mode of thinking which facilitates certain kinds of problem solving. Yes, thinking about sex can make you smarter!
In recent years, greed has got an increasingly bad name, being blamed for all manner of financial crises. However, a closer look at our pursuit of money suggests that greed is far from uniformly harmful. The more money people have, the happier they are. And this is especially the case if they know how to spend it: Research shows that spending money on experiences brings more happiness than spending money on material possessions. The amazing thing about money is that the very concept of it can influence our behavior in quite startling ways. Expose people to money-related words, like 'cash' or 'coin' and they become more self-sufficient; get them to count a pile of cash and they become more resistant to pain!