Christian Jarrett examines the relevance of the idea of sin to modern life. As Charlie Munger said “Envy is a really stupid sin because it’s the only one you could never possibly have any fun at. There’s a lot of pain and no fun. Why would you want to get on that trolley.”
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.’