A Date with the Seven Deadly Sins

Our guest blogger today is social psychologist Simon H. Laham, PhD, author of the engaging new book, The Science of Sin, The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and why they are so good for you), which is available today. It’s fascinating!

Have you ever broken up with someone for being too lazy? Too proud? How about too greedy?

Pride, greed, gluttony, sloth, envy, anger and lust – the seven deadly sins – get a pretty bad rap in western culture, but a closer look at the scientific record suggests that even these deadliest of vices might not be so deadly after all.

Here are just a few of the upsides of the seven deadlies that you might keep in mind the next time your partner or your date veer to the sinful side.

Gluttony makes you generous.  Recent research shows that people who are hungry are less likely to donate to charity than those who are full. This research is based on the finding that various rewarding stimuli (e.g., food and money) are processed in the same part of the brain and are thus, in some sense, substitutable. So a hungry person may not only crave cake but also cash and thus be more likely to hold onto any spare money that’s lying around.

Anger opens your mind.  Anger may strike you as a rather stubborn emotion, however, research shows that angry people are more likely to entertain arguments that run contrary to their existing beliefs and are thus more open to persuasion. Anger triggers an antagonistic mindset, which some researchers think leads angry people to challenge the status quo.

Greed makes you pain-resistant. The effect that money has on our minds is so strong that even the very idea of money has startling consequences. In one study, some participants were given a pile of cash to count, which served to activate the idea of money in their minds. After this, the experimenters plunged these participants’ hands into a bucket of hot water. Remarkably, these money-primed individuals felt less pain than people in a control condition!

Sloth makes you helpful. Research shows that inhabitants of slow cities are more helpful. Psychologists measured the pace of life in a number of US cities by observing the time it took for people to walk 60 yards. They also assessed helpfulness in these cities by staging a number of events and observing who helped. The slower the pace of life in a city, the more people were to pick up a dropped pen or give someone change for the phone.

Envy makes you more creative. Although the poet Ovid portrayed envy as a bile-dripping, black-toothed monster, this sin, which involves comparing oneself to those better-off, can actually inspire and motivate. In one study, participants were asked to think of as many uses for a brick as possible (a standard creativity test that psychologists use). Half of the participants had, prior to doing the brick task, been exposed to an inspirational role model. These people were more creative than other participants, who did not encounter an enviable other.

Pride makes you persist. Pride sits atop the list of deadly sins; it is an honor that is thoroughly undeserved. Pride is that feeling that comes after a hard-earned success or achievement. And the interesting thing about this emotion is its self-reinforcing nature. Pride not only follows success, but triggers it. With pride comes a sense of control and a tendency to persist at difficult tasks, both of which qualities push one towards further success and yet further pride.

Lust makes you smart. Lust triggers a range of psychological shifts – it makes us find others more attractive and pay them more attention – but it also makes us focus on details, rather than the big picture. Such detail-oriented thinking helps us to reason. In one study, researchers put people in a lustful mindset by having them imagine going on a date with an attractive partner. They then gave these people some problems to solve: “If A is less than B and C is greater than B, then is A less than C?” The researchers found that lustful participants were better at such problems than the non-lustful. These problems (called analytic thinking problems) require logical reasoning, the building of solutions from the details up, and thus the detail-oriented lustful performed better.

These are just some of the benefits of the seven deadly sins. There are many more. So next time you look across the table at that gluttonous, angry, greedy, lazy, envious, proud and lustful partner of yours, take heart, you could do a lot worse!

Learn more about The Science of Sin and the author!

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