#9. A Summary of ‘The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business’ by Charles Duhigg

‘The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business’ by Charles Duhigg (Random House, 28/02/2012)

*A podcast discussion of this book is also available. To listen to the podcast click on the link below and press ‘play’.

The Podcast

*The podcast is also available for download on iTunes.

Table of Contents:

i. Introduction


1. The Importance of Habits

2. How Habits Are Formed

3. Changing Your Habits

4. The Importance of Keystone Habits

5. The Importance of Belief and Communities of Support


6. Institutional Routines & The Issue of Power

7. Keystone Habits in Businesses and Organizations

8. The Most Important Keystone Habit of All: Willpower

9. How Companies Instill Habits in Their Customers


10. Rosa Parks, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and The Civil Rights Movement

11. Conclusion

i. Introduction

It is often said that we are creatures of habit, in that many of our daily activities end up being a matter of routine rather than direct deliberation (just think of your morning run-through). While this is no doubt true, author Charles Duhigg insists that this is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact that habits have on our daily lives. Indeed, in his new book ‘The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business’ Duhigg argues that habits pervade not only our personal lives, but that they have an integral role to play in the businesses and other organizations of which we are a part, and that they are also at the heart of social movements and societies at large.

Given that this is the case, and given that there is a world of difference between good habits and bad, getting our habits right can mean the difference between success and failure not only in our personal lives, but in our professional lives, and in the communities in which we live. Now, while our habits may be deeply ingrained, most of us recognize that they can be changed, and indeed Duhigg argues that a proper understanding of our habits reveals not only that they can be changed, but also the most effective ways to change them. It remains only for us to use these lessons to help improve ourselves as well as the organizations and communities of which we are a part.

The first part of the book focuses on the role that habits play in our personal lives. Here we learn about the habit loop consisting of cue, routine, and reward, and how the elements in this loop can be manipulated to help modify our habits (say from crashing on the couch with a bag of chips, to heading out for a run). We also learn about the power of particular habits called keystone habits (which include exercise, as well as eating together as a family) that help initiate a domino effect that touches all of the other aspects of our lives. Also, we learn about the power of belief—and the importance of social groups in helping create this belief—that stands behind successful habit transformation programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

The second part of the book concentrates on how habits help shape businesses and organizations. Here we learn that the formation of habits and routines within organizations is unavoidable; what’s more, that it is always best for the leadership of a group to make a deliberate effort to shape the habits of their organizations, and in a way that ensures a high degree of equality and fairness for its various members, while nonetheless making it clear who is ultimately in charge of each particular aspect of the operation. Second, we learn that keystone habits—which are at the center of our personal lives—are also pivotal when it comes to larger organizations (and how a particular keystone habit was applied to resurrect the once great but flailing American aluminum company Alcoa). We also learn about the greatest keystone habit of all: willpower, and how this habit can best be cultivated (and how companies such as Starbucks are employing these lessons to help train employees successfully). Finally, we learn about how companies such as Proctor & Gamble and Target instill habits in their customers.

The third and final part of the book examines the importance of habits in social movements, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Here we learn that movements tend to follow a three-part process. To start with, a movement tends to begin with a group of close acquaintances and friends. The movement tends to grow when these people spread it to the broader communities of which they are a part. Finally, in order to really take hold and spread, the movement must be guided forward by an effective leader who lays down new habits for the movement’s adherents in a way that allows them to gain a sense of identity.

In the following pages I will outline the major findings that Charles Duhigg brings to the table, as I give a summary of his ‘The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business’. The article is divided into three parts, as is the book.


 1. The Importance of Habits

While we may agree with the statement that we humans are creatures of habit, it is easy to underestimate how much this is truly the case. Just consider the following list of questions about your daily routine, and how often your answers to these questions reveal deep-seated habits: “when you woke up this morning, what did you do first? Did you hop in the shower, check your email, or grab a doughnut from the kitchen counter? Did you brush your teeth before or after you toweled off? Tie the left or right shoe first? What did you say to your kids on your way out the door? Which route did you drive to work? When you got to your desk, did you deal with email, chat with a colleague, or jump into writing a memo? Salad or hamburger for lunch? When you got home, did you put on your sneakers and go for a run, or pour yourself a drink and eat dinner in front of the TV” (loc. 126). These questions could easily continue on through your evening routine up until the time that you tuck your children in and go to sleep yourself, but you get the picture: for most of us, the answers to these questions betray deeply ingrained daily habits. Given that this is the case, it comes as no surprise that a study in 2006 out of Duke University found that “more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits (loc. 133).

Of course, there was a time when each of us did make a conscious decision about how we would handle any one of the alternatives mentioned above. However, once these decisions were made, our deliberative minds stepped out of the picture, and our behaviours were reduced to habit. As Duhigg explains it, “at one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behaviour became automatic” (loc. 157).

When it comes to our habits, some of them are extremely simple, such as applying the toothpaste to the toothbrush before sticking it into our mouths (loc. 420). However, other habits are extremely complex, such as backing the car out of the driveway: “it involves opening the garage, unlocking the car door, adjusting the seat, inserting the key in the ignition, turning it clockwise, moving the rearview and side mirrors and checking for obstacles, putting your foot on the brake, moving the gearshift into reverse, removing your foot from the brake, mentally estimating the distance between the garage and the street while keeping the wheels aligned and monitoring for oncoming traffic, calculating how reflected images in the mirrors translate into actual distances between the bumper, the garbage cans, and the hedges, all while applying slight pressure to the gas pedal and brake, and, most likely, telling your passenger to please stop fiddling with the radio” (loc. 429).

There is a very good reason, of course, for our tendency to form habits around out daily activities, simple and complex alike. For any behaviour that can be reduced to a routine is one less behaviour that we must spend time and energy consciously thinking about and deciding upon. This frees up time and energy for other matters. Indeed, as Duhigg points out, “once that habit starts unfolding, our gray matter is free to quiet itself or chase other thoughts, which is why we have enough mental capacity to realize that Jimmy forgot his lunchbox inside” (loc. 432).

Conserving mental energy where possible has enormous adaptive value, of course, and therefore, it is quite likely that the tendency to form habits evolved in our species, as well as in other species, for just this reason. As Duhigg puts it, “this effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage… [for] an efficient brain… allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviours, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games” (loc. 438).

2. How Habits Are Formed

So how does it work? How do our brains fall into habits? According to Duhigg, it comes down to a simple, three part loop: cue, routine and reward. In the author’s own words, “first, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future” (loc. 454).

The Habit Loop

If everything lines up, the brain ‘remembers’ the loop, and is predisposed to using the same routine when the same cue comes up again in the future. Essentially this is operant conditioning 101: a certain cue is followed by a particular behaviour, and the subsequent reward for this behaviour reinforces the behaviour itself. The more often the brain uses the loop to good effect the deeper the behaviour becomes ingrained—to the point where the behaviour itself becomes more and more automatic (loc. 457).

Eventually, the cue ends up being so bound up with the reward that the cue itself will trigger a craving for the reward: “the cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges” (loc. 457). In fact, it is only when a particular cue triggers a craving directly that the associated behaviour truly becomes a habit: “countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward… will [the behaviour] become automatic” (loc. 964). Ultimately, the sense of anticipation that the cue triggers becomes so powerful that the absence of the anticipated reward can cause deep disappointment and frustration (loc. 901-23); hence why habits are so powerful (loc. 912).

The sub-conscious brain is constantly looking out for opportunities to form new habits (by identifying rewards that follow particular routines that are performed after certain cues), and therefore, habit formation itself is very much an unconscious process (loc. 912). Given that this is the case, many of the habits that we develop are not necessarily ones that we want. As Duhigg explains, “habits emerge without our permission”; for example, “studies indicate that families usually don’t intend to eat fast food on a regular basis. What happens is that a once a month pattern slowly becomes once a week, and then twice a week—as the cues and rewards create a habit—until the kids are consuming an unhealthy amount of hamburgers and fries” (loc. 575).

3. Changing Your Habits

Once habits set in they can, of course, be very difficult to change. In fact, studies indicate that once habits are formed in the brain, they become encoded in the structures therein, and can never truly be eradicated (loc. 469). This is particularly problematic given that at least some of the habits that we develop (if not most of them) are ones that we would prefer not to have. Thankfully though, it turns out that we can take control of the habit loop and develop new habits that come to overpower and override the old ones; and, as the author points out, “once someone creates a new pattern, studies have demonstrated, going for a jog or ignoring the doughnuts becomes as automatic as any other habit” (loc. 475).

The ability that we have to change our habits (and with it the underlying neurology of our brains) is seen nowhere more dramatically than in cases such as Lisa Allen: “Lisa Allen, according to her file, was thirty-four years old, had started smoking and drinking when she was sixteen, and had struggled with obesity for most of her life. At one point, in her mid-twenties, collection agencies were hounding her to recover $10,000 in debts. An old resume listed her longest job as lasting less than a year” (loc. 55). Within a span of 5 years, though, Lisa had transformed herself into a person that bore almost no resemblance to her former self: “the woman in front of researchers today… was lean and vibrant, with the toned legs of a runner. She looked a decade younger than the photos in her chart and like she could out-exercise anyone in the room. According to the most recent report in her file, Lisa had no outstanding debts, didn’t drink, and was in her thirty-ninth month at a graphic design firm” (loc. 58). Lisa had also quit smoking, lost 60 pounds, run a marathon, completed a master’s degree, and bought her own home (loc. 61). Not too shabby.

How did Lisa change her life? Simple: she changed her habits. Well, actually, this is a bit misleading, for Lisa didn’t so much change her habits as create new habits that came to override her old ones. And all of this was reflected in her brain wiring. Indeed, as the neurologists who study Lisa explained, “one set of neurological patterns—her old habits—has been overridden by new patterns. They could still see the neural activity of her old behaviours, but those impulses were crowded out by new urges. As Lisa’s habits changed, so had her brain” (loc. 106).

So, how did Lisa manage to create new habits that came to override her old ones? According to Duhigg, the most effective way to modify your habits is to attack the habit loop directly, and to replace an old routine that is associated with a particular cue and reward, with a new routine. This is a known as the golden rule of habit change: “you can never truly extinguish bad habits. Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine” (loc. 1138).

As an example, Duhigg brings up the instance of how he changed his habit of going to the cafeteria everyday at around 3:00 pm to buy a cookie, to a new habit, where, instead of going to the cafeteria to buy a cookie, he would go and seek out 10 minutes of social time with a friend. Perhaps it is best if we let Duhigg explain how he accomplished this himself:

So there you have it. If you want to change a habit, first identify the cue that is triggering the routine (this may be anything from a location, a time of day, an emotional state, the presence of certain other people, or an immediately preceding action [loc. 4680]). Second, identify the reward that the habit is bringing you. This can be tricky, as the reward is sometimes masked among other things. For instance, in Duhigg’s case, one would have thought that the reward for his going to the cafeteria and ordering a cookie would be a burst of sugary goodness. However, this was not actually the case. As it turned out, the reward that Duhigg was really after was the companionship of the colleagues that he would invariably meet when he went down to the caf. Given the sometimes obscure nature of the rewards that drive our habits, you may need to experiment with your routine a little in order to identify precisely what the reward is that is behind your behaviour (as Duhigg did in the clip).

Once you have identified the cue that triggers your habit, and the reward that it brings, it is time to come up with a plan to replace your current habit with a new one. In Duhigg’s case, he found that the reward for going down to the cafeteria at 3 o’clock was social companionship, so he replaced the act of buying the cookie with simply searching out a friend in the office to gossip with for a spell. The cue and reward stayed the same, but Duhigg changed his routine. As simple as this technique sounds, it has actually been used to successfully treat such conditions as  “verbal and physical tics, depression, smoking, gambling problems, anxiety, bedwetting, procrastination, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and other behavioural problems” (loc. 1371).

4. The Importance of Keystone Habits

Now, if you are like Lisa Allen, and you have a whole lot of habits you would like to change, the aforementioned approach—which seems to require tackling one habit at a time—may sound like a somewhat long, drawn out, and tedious process. Thankfully, though, there is a shortcut, and it involves what are called keystone habits. Keystone habits are habits that, when changed, set off a chain reaction that extends to all aspects of a person’s life: “some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking… lives. These are ‘keystone habits,’ and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything” (loc. 1729).

For Lisa, one of her keystone habits was smoking; when she quit smoking, other habits started to follow suit: “that one small shift in Lisa’s perception… the conviction that she had to give up smoking… had touched off a series of changes that would ultimately radiate out to every part of her life. Over the next six months, she would replace smoking with jogging, and that, in turn, changed how she ate, worked, slept, saved money, scheduled her workdays, planned for the future, and so on” (loc. 102).

Identifying keystone habits is not always easy, but there are tricks for it. For instance, research has revealed that keystone habits seem to operate on the principle of ‘small wins’, which are just what they sound like: tiny victories that give you an indication that you are progressing, and that you can in fact succeed. As one Cornell professor puts it: “once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win” (loc. 1919). Duhigg adds that “small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach” (loc. 1919). Though keystone habits may exist in a myriad of forms, and may be different for different people, certain habits tend to act as keystone habits across the board. Exercising is certainly one of these (loc. 1858-64). And eating as a family (loc. 1864), and doing things like making your bed every morning (loc. 1864) have also been shown to be highly correlated with other good habits.

5. The Importance of Belief and Communities of Support

As mentioned above, when you are trying to change your habits, small wins can provide an important sense of belief that this change is in fact possible. And the power of belief should not be underestimated, for it has been shown to be a particularly effective tool when it comes to making change—and specifically when the habits you are trying to change are especially stubborn, such as alcoholism. In the case of alcoholism (and those like it), times of deep stress can easily derail any progress that an individual may have made in replacing their old habit with a new one, and send them right back to their old ways. If, however, the individual has developed a strong sense of belief that they will be able to cope with their stress without the use of alcohol, then this seems to make all the difference (loc. 1497). As the researcher Scott Tonigan of the University of New Mexico explains, “belief seems critical. You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better. Even if you give people better habits, it doesn’t repair why they started drinking in the first place. Eventually they’ll have a bad day, and no new routine is going to make everything seem okay. What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol” (loc. 1500-04).

The program Alcoholics Anonymous has always made excellent use of this fact. AA was once considered to be somewhat of a cult organization among scientists, due to its heavy reliance on spirituality in its approach. Recently, however, scientists have begun to take AA more seriously. Part of the reason why Alcoholics Anonymous has been so successful, it seems, is because the program makes the belief that things can change an important part of their meetings. Tonigan argues that “by putting alcoholics in meetings where belief is a given—where, in fact, belief is an integral part of the twelve steps—AA trains people in how to believe in something until they believe in the program and themselves. It lets people practice believing that things will get better, until things actually do” (loc. 1507).

And a big part of why AA seems to be so effective in engendering belief among its members, is because the program takes place in a social setting, where the matter of belief becomes a group experience. “There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences,” claims Lee Ann Kaskutas of the Alcohol Research Group, “people might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief” (loc. 1510).

So, putting it all together, then, Duhigg sums things up this way: “we know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group” (loc. 1627).


 6. Institutional Routines & The Issue of Power

Just as in our personal lives, habits have an important role to play in businesses and organizations as well. In fact, as it turns out, habits and routines are just as inevitable in the latter as they are in the former. This proves to be the case because without institutional habits organizations would quite simply never get any work done. Indeed, with regards to these habits, one study revealed that “without them, policy formulation and implementation would be lost in a jungle of detail” (loc. 2725). To give a few examples, Duhigg points out that institutional routines are what “allow workers to experiment with ideas without having to ask for permission at every step. They provide,” he continues, “a kind of ‘organizational memory,’ so that managers don’t have to reinvent the sales process every six months or panic each time a VP quits” (loc. 2718).

Institutional habits are not only necessary in order to keep operations running, but—perhaps even more importantly—to prevent an entire organization from falling apart in a mess of ambition and rivalry between its members. Indeed, as Duhigg reminds us, “companies aren’t big happy families where everyone plays together nicely. Rather, most workplaces are made up of fiefdoms where executives compete for power and credit, often in hidden skirmishes that make their own performances appear superior and their rivals’ seem worse. Divisions compete for resources and sabotage each other to steal glory. Bosses pit their subordinates against one another so that no one can mount a coup. Companies aren’t families. They’re battlefields in a civil war” (loc. 2732). And the only thing that stops these battles from being waged out in the open and bringing the company to ruin, Duhigg claims, is the fact that there are routines in place to ensure that truces are maintained between the major players to such a degree so as to allow business to more or less go on as usual (loc. 2736): “organizational habits offer a basic promise: if you follow the established patterns and abide by the truce, then rivalries won’t destroy the company, the profits will roll in, and, eventually, everyone will get rich” (loc. 2736).

Now, while the truce arrangement often works well enough, it is susceptible to breaking down in certain situations. For one, the truce system is especially inadequate in scenarios where one individual or group of individuals within  an organization has a great deal more power than another. Indeed, as Duhigg explains, “truces are only durable when they create real justice. If a truce is unbalanced—if the peace isn’t real—then the routines often fail whey they are needed most” (loc. 2781). Just such a situation held sway at the Rhode Island Hospital in the mid-2000’s. In this case, doctors at the Hospital held all of the power, while the nurses had little, if any, and a toxic environment soon developed within the institution (loc. 2601, 2630-34). Ultimately, this toxic environment led to repeated procedural errors, and patients’ health suffered (sometimes fatally) (loc. 2637, 2668-75, 2944-57).

While a severe imbalance in power poses particular problems for the truce system, such an imbalance in power is not necessary in order to expose holes in this arrangement. This fact was revealed with devastating effect in 1987, when a fire tore through the London Underground at King’s Cross station. In this case, a small fire that would have been put out immediately had appropriate organizational procedures been in place was allowed to grow into a major fire that killed 31 and injured dozens (loc. 2905). Unlike at the Rhode Island Hospital, the problem here was not that there was a major imbalance of power in the organization. On the contrary, each major department within the London Underground had perfect autonomy over its own specific domain. The problem was that there was virtually no integration between the departments, such that workers generally ignored issues that were not the direct concern of their own departments. As a result, numerous errors were made that day that contributed directly to the disaster. To give just two examples, first, the worker who originally encountered evidence of the fire did not report it (loc. 2811), and second, no one in the building knew how to operate the sprinkler system “because another department controlled them” (loc. 2856).

In order to avoid these kinds of organizational mishaps, Duhigg argues, an organization must make an active effort to ensure that there is a balance of power between its members, while at the same time making it absolutely clear who is ultimately responsible for any given aspect of its operations: “creating successful organizations isn’t just a matter of balancing authority. For an organization to work, leaders must cultivate habits that both create a real and balanced peace and, paradoxically, make it absolutely clear who’s in charge” (loc. 2795).

Ultimately, the crises at Rhode Island Hospital and the London Underground spurred these organizations to make just these changes (loc. 2968-71, 3012-14), as both organizations have since rewritten their rule books to reflect this philosophy. In the case of the Rhode Island Hospital, the directors “put the entire staff through an intensive training program that emphasized teamwork and stressed the importance of empowering nurses and medical staff… Administrators installed video cameras in operating rooms to make sure time-outs occurred and checklists were mandated for every surgery. [And] a computerized system allowed any hospital employee to anonymously report problems that endangered patient health” (loc. 2970). With regards to the London Underground, “a slew of new laws were passed and the culture of the Underground was overhauled. Today, every station has a manager whose primary responsibility is passenger safety, and every employee has an obligation to communicate at the smallest hint of risk… [T]he Underground’s habits and truces have adjusted just enough to make it clear who has ultimate responsibility for fire prevention, and everyone is empowered to act, regardless of whose toes they might step on” (loc. 3011-16). As a result of these changes, the Rhode Island Hospital is now once again considered to be one of the top Hospitals in the United States (loc. 3026-29), and the London Underground has become a bastion of safety, while “all the trains still run on time” (loc. 3014).

7. Keystone Habits in Businesses and Organizations

In the section on habits in our personal lives, we saw how keystone habits play a pivotal role here. Keystone habits, you will recall, are habits that, when changed, set off a chain reaction that extends to many other aspects of our lives. As it turns out, keystone habits also exist at the level of organizations, and are capable of having just as powerful an impact here. An example of this is how Paul O’Neill, CEO of Alcoa between 1987 and 2000, targeted a particular keystone habit to help turn around the then flailing, but once great American aluminum company. The keystone habit that O’Neill targeted was workplace safety.

Now, you may be skeptical (as many of the investors initially were [loc. 1685-1711]) that a habit such as workplace safety could completely transform a company—including its efficiency and sales—but this is exactly what happened. When O’Neill took over Alcoa in 1987, the once pioneering and juggernaut of a company had been foundering for over a year, as “Alcoa’s management had made misstep after misstep, unwisely trying to expand into new product lines while competitors stole customers and profits away” (loc. 1676). But by focusing on safety, and safety alone, within a year of O’Neill’s hiring “Alcoa’s profits would hit a record high. By the time O’Neill retired in 2000, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived, and its market capitalization had risen by $27 billion” (loc. 1715).

So how did Paul O’Neill come to focus on workplace safety in his mandate, and how did this one habit manage to transform the entire company? Well, to begin with, O’Neill was a believer in the power of keystone habits. As O’Neill himself explains it, “you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company” (loc. 1725).

O’Neill knew that the one habit that he chose would have to be one that would bring the entire organization together. In other words, he knew that the that habit he chose would have to be one that was of interest to everyone, unions and managers alike—and workplace safety certainly fit this bill (loc. 1799). This was especially true at Alcoa, because at the time the company was an extremely dangerous place to work. Indeed, “before O’Neill’s arrival, almost every Alcoa plant had at least one accident per week” (loc. 1718). So O’Neill set out with “an audacious goal: zero injuries. Not zero factory injuries. Zero injuries, period. That would be his commitment no matter how much it cost” (loc. 1804).

Unbeknownst to the workers and management who signed on to O’Neill’s mission, the project would require transforming virtually every aspect of Alcoa’s operations: “O’Neill’s plan for getting to zero injuries entailed the most radical realignment in Alcoa’s history. The key to protecting Alcoa employees, O’Neill believed, was understanding why injuries happened in the first place. And to understand why injuries happened, you had to study how the manufacturing process was going wrong. To understand how things were going wrong, you had to bring in people to educate workers about quality control and the most efficient work processes, so that it would be easier to do everything right, since correct work is also safer work. In other words, to protect workers, Alcoa needed to become the best, most streamlined aluminum company on earth” (loc. 1815-21). Which is exactly what happened (loc. 1853).

Many of the measures that O’Neill introduced were ones that had been opposed for decades by either the unions or the managers (loc. 1835-38). However, when O’Neill couched these measures in terms of workplace safety, no one could argue with him, the measures were passed, and the positive results started to pour in. In the end, “Alcoa became one of the best performing stocks in the Dow Jones index, while also becoming one of the safest places on earth” (loc. 1737).

8. The Most Important Keystone Habit of All: Willpower

Another story of success involving businesses and keystone habits, involves the company Starbucks, and the most important keystone habit of all: willpower. As Duhigg explains, numerous studies have now shown that “willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success” (loc. 2219). For instance, in one study of eight-grade students conducted in 2005 out of the University of Pennsylvania, willpower (as measured by how the subjects performed on self-discipline tests) turned out to be the single biggest factor in predicting academic performance: “‘Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable,’ the researchers wrote. ‘Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ’” (loc. 2219-24).

In another (now famous) study performed in the 1960’s out of Stanford University, a group of researchers tested four-year-olds on how well they could resist eating “a selection of treats, including marshmallows” (loc. 2251). Years later, when the participants had entered high school, the researchers tracked them down. What did they find? “They discovered that the four-year-olds who could delay gratification the longest ended up with the best grades and with SAT scores 210 points higher, on average, than everyone else. They were [also] more popular and did fewer drugs” (loc. 2256-59).

Here is a segment on this experiment, and how willpower can be cultivated from an early age:

Interestingly, willpower appears to be something that works just like a muscle, in that it can be worn out if it is over worked (loc. 2306-15), but can also be built up through a routine of willpower exercise. In other words, as Duhigg likes to put it, willpower can be made into a habit (loc. 2227). Indeed, in studies where subjects took part in multi-week programs that required them to exhibit self-discipline (either when it came to exercise, or money matters or academic matters), the subjects subsequently showed vast improvements in their over-all levels of self-discipline in all areas of their lives. In fact, no matter what program the participants took part in, by the end of the program they drank less alcohol and caffeine, smoked fewer cigarettes, ate less junk food, spent more time exercising and on homework, and less time watching TV (loc. 2332, 2341, 2347). As Duhigg puts it, “as people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money-management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything” (loc. 2344).

In an effort to harness the incredible potential of willpower, the company Starbucks set out in the late1990’s to create a new training program for its frontline workers that would transform them into models of self-discipline. This was necessary, executives felt, because the price of a Starbucks coffee was steep, and, in order to justify this high cost, “the company needed to train its employees to deliver a bit of joy alongside lattes and scones” (loc. 2232). And after all, management felt, “if a worker knows how to remain focused and disciplined, even at the end of an eight-hour shift, they’ll deliver the higher class of fast food service that Starbucks customers expect” (loc. 2234-37).

In order to make this goal a reality, Starbucks spent millions of dollars to come up with a curriculum that would train employees in self-discipline. The end result was a set of workbooks “that, in effect, serve as guides to how to make willpower a habit in workers’ lives” (loc. 2239). The curriculum itself has been incredibly successful, and, as Duhigg points out, is, “in part, why Starbucks has grown from a sleepy Seattle company into a behemoth with more than seventeen thousand stores and revenues of more than $10 billion a year” (loc. 2239).

So, what exactly does the Starbucks curriculum contain? Essentially, the curriculum draws on the principle of the cue, routine and reward loop to instill reliable and successful customer service habits in employees for when life at Starbucks gets a bit hairy. Specifically, Starbucks employees are trained in how to respond to particular cues, “such as a screaming customer or a long line at a cash register” (loc. 2444), with preset routines that are designed to minimize conflict and stress, and maximize customer satisfaction. The rewards for behaving in these pre-set ways at the appropriate times are also specified. So, for instance, “the company specified rewards—a grateful customer, praise from a manager—that employees could look to as evidence of a job well done” (loc. 2446).

To give one concrete example of how this all comes together, let’s say a customer comes to the till at a Starbucks screaming their head off. The Starbucks employee is taught to use the LATTE approach (no, despite the hokey name, this has nothing to do with giving the customer a free coffee). Essentially what the LATTE approach entails is that the employee will “Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred” (loc. 2457). Once the desired routines are learned for any given cue, the cues, routines and rewards are all role-played until the routines themselves become habits: “managers drill employees, role-playing with them until the responses be[come] automatic” (loc. 2445).

The program has proven to be so effective at Starbucks that many other organizations have copied the strategy and are now using it with their own employees (loc. 2473). And the program is not only helping these organizations with their bottom lines, it is also turning out to help the employees in their own lives. As Duhigg explains, “Starbucks—like a handful of other companies—has succeeded in teaching the kind of life skills that schools, families, and communities have failed to provide” (loc. 2213). One particular Starbucks employee named Travis Leach—who came to the job with severe self-discipline problems, but who has since been transformed into a very successful individual largely as a result of the training—went so far as to say that “Starbucks is the most important thing that has ever happened to me… I owe everything to this company” (loc. 2210).

9. How Companies Instill Habits in Their Customers

Having explored how businesses and organizations cultivate habits in their organizations and among their employees, we will now turn our attention to how companies instill habits in their customers.

The knowledge of how this is done is extremely important to companies, of course, because few things generate more sales than if a company can successfully create a habit out of buying their product or coming to their store. But the knowledge is perhaps even more important to individuals, who stand to save a great deal of money if they can resist forming the habit of buying a product that they really don’t need. So take this how you will, the knowledge may be invaluable no matter what side of the fence you find yourself on.

Perhaps the most interesting example of a company successfully instilling a habit in their customers is the story of Pepsodent toothpaste. In the early 1900’s, when Pepsodent first got its start, almost nobody bought toothpaste, because almost nobody brushed their teeth (loc. 661, 712).  People’s reluctance to buy toothpaste had nothing to do with the fact that they had stellar dental hygiene. On the contrary, as Duhigg explains, “it was no secret that the health of Americans’ teeth was in steep decline. As the nation had become wealthier, people had started buying larger amounts of sugary, processed foods. When the government started drafting men for World War I, so many recruits had rotting teeth that officials said poor dental hygiene was a national security risk” (loc. 657). Nor could the fact that nobody bought toothpaste be blamed on the fact that nobody had tried to sell toothpaste before. To be sure, “there was already an army of door-to-door salesmen hawking dubious tooth powders and elixirs, most of them going broke” (loc. 657). And yet, within a decade of Pepsodent’s introducing its toothpaste, almost half of all Americans brushed their teeth on a daily basis (loc. 672), and Pepsodent itself was one of the best-selling products on the planet (loc. 710).

So, how did Pepsodent succeed in selling toothpaste when countless others had failed? To begin with, Pepsodent’s advertiser, Claude Hopkins, developed a clever little ad campaign that drew on the principle of the cue, routine and reward habit loop. Specifically, the cue that Hopkins targeted was that thin layer of film that you can feel on your teeth when you run your tongue over your gnashers first thing in the morning. The reward that Hopkins promised was a mouthful of beautiful teeth. Here is how one ad ran: “Just run your tongue across your teeth… You’ll feel a film—that’s what makes your teeth look ‘off color’ and invites decay…  Millions are using a new method of teeth cleaning. Why would any woman have dingy film on her teeth? Pepsodent removes the film!” (loc. 699).

Nevermind that that thin layer of film had always presided over people’s teeth (loc. 688 ), and that toothpaste has nothing to do with removing this film (loc. 692)—indeed, the film can just as easily be removed by “eating an apple, running your finger over your teeth, brushing, or vigorously swirling liquid around your mouth” (loc. 692). The fact that you have a film on your teeth is a cue that is quite simply impossible to ignore (loc. 699): “Hopkins had found a cue that was simple, had existed for ages, and was so easy to trigger that an advertisement could cause people to comply automatically” (loc. 703). What’s more, the prospect of a mouthful of beautiful teeth was simply too tempting to turn down (loc. 706). As a result, the ad campaign turned out to be a smash, and within weeks the orders were coming in so fast and furious that Pepsodent couldn’t keep up with demand (loc. 710).

However, this is only half of the story. In addition to having a clever ad campaign, Pepsodent also contained a few ingredients that other toothpastes did not. Specifically, it contained “citric acid, as well as doses of mint oil and other chemicals” (loc. 1060). These ingredients made Pepsodent taste fresh, of course, but they also have an effect that the inventor did not intend or anticipate: “they’re irritants that create a cool, tingling sensation on the tongue and gums” (loc. 1060). As it turns out, this clean, tingling sensation is something that really struck a chord with users, and is a sensation that actually cultivates a craving. As Duhigg explains, “customers said that if they forgot to use Pepsodent, they realized their mistake because they missed that cool, tingling sensation in their mouths. They expected—they craved—that slight irritation. If it wasn’t there, their mouths didn’t feel clean” (loc. 1063). Here was something concrete that people could latch onto and that kept them coming back for more, and it worked like a charm. The rest, as they say, is history (eventually, other brands caught on and started copying the Pepsodent formula, and Pepsodent itself was ultimately eclipsed by them, put the point remains).

For a bit of nostalgia, here is an ad from the 1950’s when Pepsodent was still at the top of the toothpaste world.

And just to show that the principle of cue, routine and reward (and craving) works just as well at instilling customers with habits today as it did over one hundred years ago, consider the example of Febreze air freshener. Originally, the ad campaign for Febreze emphasized the fact that the product eliminated bad smells, which it did (loc. 803-13). The ad campaign was a flop (loc. 817). So Proctor & Gamble modified the ad campaign (and the product itself, by adding more perfume to it [loc. 1007]) to point up the fact that Febreze made things smell clean: “the tagline had been ‘Gets bad smells out of fabrics.’ It was rewritten as ‘Cleans life’s smells’” (loc. 1011). In addition, the product was now marketed as something that was used at the end of the cleaning routine, rather than at the beginning—it was now meant to be viewed as “the fun part of making something cleaner” (loc. 1007)  These  small changes made all the difference. As Duhigg explains, “the Febreze relaunch took place in the summer of 1998. Within two months, sales doubled. With a year, customers had spent more than $230 million on the product. Since then, Febreze has spawned dozens of spin-offs—air fresheners, candles, laundry detergents, and kitchen sprays—that, all told, now account for sales of more than $1 billion per year” (loc. 1027).

Again, it wasn’t just the ads that allowed Febreze to take off, it was the fact that the new scent created a craving in its users, and the new ads played up this scent.  As Drake Stimson, the team leader of the ad campaign reported, “we were looking at it all wrong. No one craves scentlessness. On the other hand, lots of people crave a nice smell after they’ve spent thirty minutes cleaning” (loc. 1024).

As a final instance of how companies instill habits in their customers we will take the example of the retailer Target. Unlike the previous examples, where the companies had a product that they wanted people to make a habit of buying, Target is a retailer that sells pretty well anything, and just wants people to habitually return to their store. So, what gets people to keep coming back to your store? Coupons! Indeed, fresh deals seem to keep the customers pouring in. And this is especially beneficial for a store like Target, since, if a customer comes in with a coupon for milk, chances are they’ll stick around and buy other groceries too.

Of course, the drawback to coupons is that they’re one-size-fits-all. That is, any edition of a coupon flyer contains all the same products. However, different shoppers have very different shopping patterns and habits (just think of the difference between a confirmed bachelor and a new mom). Given that this is the case, what you really want is a coupon flyer that is tailored to each individual shopper. But in order to generate a personalized coupon book for each individual shopper you need to know a whole lot about each of them and what they buy. In other words, you need data. So, a little over a decade ago, stores such as Target caught on, and they started collecting data on their customers.

Target in particular “began building a vast data warehouse that assigned every shopper an identification code—known internally as the ‘Guest ID number’—that kept tabs on how each person shopped” (loc. 3138). Whenever a customer at Target used an in-store credit card, a frequent-buyer tag, a coupon, or filled out a survey, phoned the help-line, opened an email from Target, visited their web-site, or bought anything online, their activity was recorded in Target’s computer system (loc. 3142). Over and above this, Target bought demographic information about each of their customers from other companies, which included (brace yourself) “the shopper’s age, whether they were married and had kids, which part of town they lived in, how long it took them to drive to the store, an estimate of how much money they earned, if they’d moved recently, which websites they visited, the credit cards they carried in their wallet, and their home and mobile phone numbers… a shopper’s ethnicity, their job history, what magazines they read, if they have ever declared bankruptcy, the year they bought (or lost) their house, where they went to college or graduate school, and whether they prefer certain brands of coffee, toilet paper, cereal, or applesauce” (loc. 3147). Wait, there’s more! Target also purchased information from other companies regarding “shopper’s political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving, the number of cars they own… whether they prefer religious news or deals on cigarettes… if they are obese or skinny, short or tall, hairy or bald, and what kinds of products they might want to buy as a result” (loc. 3154).

And it’s not just Target that’s doing this, of course. Tom Davenport, an expert on how businesses use data and analytics, reports that “it used to be that companies only knew what their customers wanted them to know… That world is far behind us. You’d be shocked how much information is out there—and every company buys it, because it’s the only way to survive” (loc. 3157). Not that everyone likes this new state of affairs. Indeed, there are numerous ongoing lawsuits regarding these matters in several states (loc. 3285-91).

In any event, Target began using the data they gathered to generate personalized coupon flyers for their customers (loc. 3166). So, for instance, “the computers looked for shoppers buying bikinis in April, and sent them coupons for sunscreen in July and weight-loss books in December” (loc. 3184). The strategy, of course, worked like a charm. But the real success came when Target decided to take aim at one type of customer in particular: pregnant women. Among retailers, pregnant women are nothing short of gold mines (loc. 3216); indeed, they are spoken of as the very “holy grail of retail” (loc. 3081). And for good reason: “one survey conducted in 2010 estimated that the average parent spends $6,800 on baby items before a child’s first birthday” (loc. 3216). What’s more, when new parents come into a retailer like Target and buy baby-gear, they don’t stop there. To be sure, “if exhausted moms and sleep-deprived dads start purchasing baby formula and diapers at Target, they’ll start buying their groceries, cleaning supplies, towels, underwear, and—well, the sky’s the limit—from Target as well. Because it’s easy. To a new parent, easy matters most of all” (loc. 3223).

Now, Target already had a way of ferreting out the pregnant women from the non-pregnant. For they had established a baby shower registry, and from the shopping habits of those who had signed up with the registry, Target’s data pundits could discern which other women were also likely to be pregnant (loc. 3245-59). When the process was complete the company “had a list of hundreds of thousands of women who were likely to be pregnant that Target could inundate with advertisements for diapers, lotions, cribs, wipes, and maternity clothing at times when their shopping habits were particularly flexible” (loc. 3269).

The only problem that Target had now was this: how would pregnant women react when they realized that Target knew that they were pregnant, and were targeting them with coupons, when they themselves had not told Target about their pregnancy? “If we send someone a catalog and say, ‘Congratulations on your first child!’ and they’ve never told us they’re pregnant, that’s going to make some people uncomfortable’” (loc. 3274) the data heads at Target thought, and indeed, they were right (loc. 3504). So they decided to employ a little trick. Rather than sending out catalogs to pregnant women full of ads directed at their pregnancy, they would just shuffle these ads in with other ads that were not as conspicuous. As one executive reported, “we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawnmower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance” (loc. 3504).

So, how did the campaign work? Well, the people at Target like to keep things private when it comes to particular operations (loc. 3511) (irony of ironies!). But let’s just say this: between 2002, when the project first started, and 2009, “Target’s revenues grew from $44 billion to $65billion” (loc. 3514), and the executives at Target have no plans of ending the program any time soon.


10. Rosa Parks, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and The Civil Rights Movement

In this final section we will take a brief look at how habits play a role in successful social movements (Duhigg himself dedicates only one chapter of the book to this topic, so the slight treatment here follows the slight treatment in the book itself).

As Duhigg explains, sociologists and historians have identified a three part process which they say shows up time and time again when it comes to successful social movements: “a movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together. And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership” (loc. 3612). In order to illustrate how each part of the process works, Duhigg focuses in on the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, beginning with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott.

On December 1st 1955, in Montgomery Alabama, Rosa Parks did a peculiar (and illegal) thing: Rosa, a black woman, refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white rider (loc. 3584-88). The immediate effect of this action was that Parks was arrested, but the act would also set the stage for one of the biggest and most successful social movements of the 20th century: “at that moment, though no one on that bus knew it, the civil rights movement pivoted. That small refusal was the first in a series of actions that shifted the battle over race relations from a struggle fought by activists in courts and legislatures into a contest that would draw its strength form entire communities and mass protests” (loc. 3594).

Now, Rosa Parks was not the first black person to be arrested for violating Montgomery’s bus segregation laws. Indeed, as Duhigg points out, this had occurred on numerous occasions in the years leading up to the incident with Parks (loc. 3619-26). Those previous arrests did not start a mass movement, however, while Rosa’s did. So, what was the difference? It was not, as we might expect, that Parks was an activist. Indeed, she herself would be the first to tell you that she was not. So what was it?

To begin with, Rosa Parks was a very popular lady, in that she was “deeply respected and embedded in her community” (loc. 3643), and had many, many friends. This was partly due to the fact that Parks was a part of so many different clubs and organizations, and in each of these clubs and organizations she “was particularly well known and liked” (loc. 3649). What’s more, “Parks’ many friendships and affiliations cut across the city’s racial and economic lines” (loc. 3652), such that her social networks extended to virtually everyone in town.

Given that this was the case, when news spread that Parks had been arrested and was being held in jail, her many friends started to come out of the woodwork and began thinking and communicating about how they could help. Within hours, two of Rosa’s friends, E.D. Nixon and Clifford Durr, had posted her bail, and had taken her home (loc. 3669). But their involvement didn’t end there. Durr was a white lawyer, and Nixon a man involved with the NAACP, and both had been looking for a prominent case to challenge the segregation laws on Montgomery’s buses. Sensing the perfect opportunity, they asked Rosa if she would agree to fight her charges in court. At first, Parks and her family were reluctant, but ultimately she agreed, and Nixon and Durr prepared to launch their case (loc. 3676).

As news of Parks’ arrest continued to spread through Montgomery, another of Parks’ friends, a woman named Jo Ann Robinson—who was “the president of a powerful group of schoolteachers involved in politics” (loc. 3676)—caught wind of Parks’ plight. Robinson immediately called a meeting of the teachers and parents of students that she knew and suggested that they promote a boycott of Montgomery’s buses on the day that Parks was to appear in court (loc. 3680). Nixon and Durr were apprized of the plan, and those involved began working to spread the word about the boycott. When news circulated that a bus boycott was going to be held in support of Parks, Parks’ friends immediately signed on, and since Rosa had many friends, this was a great many people indeed.

Thus we see how the first step in successful social movements, the support of close friends, played a part in this case (loc. 3696). As Duhigg points out, “there’s a natural instinct embedded in friendship, a sympathy that makes us willing to fight for someone we like when they are treated unjustly” (loc. 3690), and this was certainly true with Rosa’s friends.

Now that Parks’ friends were involved, it remained for them to spread the word (and the pressure to join in) through their own social networks, and the wider groups and communities of which they were a part. After Parks’ friends took the necessary steps to exert their influence, “people who hardly knew Rosa Parks decided to participate because of a social peer pressure—an influence known as ‘the power of weak ties’—that made it difficult to avoid joining in” (loc. 3702). While the term ‘weak ties’ may make this force sound a bit, well, weak, it is anything but. Indeed, as Duhigg explains, “when sociologists have examined how opinions move through communities, how gossip spreads or political movements start, they’ve discovered a common pattern: Our weak-tie acquaintances are often as influential—if not more—than our close tie friends” (loc. 3731). The reason why, it seems, is because going against the grain of the groups and communities of which we are a part risks destroying our social standing (loc. 3750). Given that this is the case, there is an enormous amount of pressure for us to go along with these groups, and this is precisely what happened here.

After all was said and done, every black church in the city (including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s) had agreed to the boycott (loc. 3836), and several other groups and communities were also on board (loc. 3839). “The community’s weak ties were drawing everyone together,” Duhigg claims, “at that point, you were either with the boycott or against it” (loc. 3848). As you might expect, the boycott was a huge success. Indeed, as Martin Luther King, Jr. later described it, “a miracle had taken place… spectators had gathered at the bus stops to watch what was happening. At first, they stood quietly, but as the day progressed they began to cheer the empty buses and laugh and make jokes. Noisy youngsters could be heard singing out, ‘No riders today’” (loc. 3854). Thus we see how the second step in successful social movements, the power of weak ties that holds groups and communities together, played a role here.

The movement had now spread to the level of the groups and communities of Montgomery, but it was still in no position to become a self-perpetuating force. Within but a few weeks, King himself “would be openly worrying that people’s resolve was weakening, that ‘the ability of the Negro community to continue the struggle’ was in doubt” (loc. 3867). What the movement needed, Duhigg argues, was a leader who could give its adherents new habits that would give them a sense of identity that would help them carry on (loc. 3870). That leader, of course, would be King, and the new habits that he would instill in the movement’s followers would be the method of non-violent resistance that King both advocated and practiced himself (loc. 3997-4006).

In many ways, the non-violent approach was a departure from how the civil rights movement had been fought up to that point: “for years, the civil rights movement had been kept alive by couching itself in the language of battles and struggles. There were contests and setbacks, triumphs and defeats that required everyone to recommit to the fight” (loc. 4011). But King changed all of that, and the change was precisely what the civil rights movement needed; for under King’s guidance, the movement’s adherents gained a new sense of identity, and the movement itself coalesced and grew stronger. As Duhigg puts it, “Montgomery’s citizens learned in mass meetings new behaviours that expanded the movement” (loc. 4028). Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize winning civil rights historian, said of the mass meetings that “people went to see how other people were handling it… You start to see yourself as part of a vast social enterprise, and after a while, you really believe you are” (loc. 4031).

Ultimately, the habits that King cultivated in his followers in Montgomery spread to other places and groups: “the civil rights movement became a wave of sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations, even as participants were violently beaten. By the early 1960’s, it had moved to Florida, California, Washington, D.C., and the halls of congress” (loc. 4064). Finally, the movement achieved success, and in 1964 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, “which outlawed all forms of segregation as well as discrimination against minorities and women” (loc. 4067).

 11. Conclusion

So there you have it. Habits not only have a large role to play in our personal lives, but are also a major force in the businesses and organizations of which we are a part, and are a necessary ingredient in successful social movements, which themselves influence how our very communities function. In each of these cases, we can have an influence on which habits hold sway, and how they are expressed. It is simply a matter of understanding how habits work, and manipulating this process to our own advantage. So, what habits do you want to change?

*Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you have enjoyed this summary of ‘The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business’ by Charles Duhigg, or just have a thought, please free to leave a comment below. Also, if you feel others may benefit from this article, please feel free to click on the g+1 symbol below, or share it on one of the umpteen social networking sites hidden beneath the ‘share’ button.



The Book Reporter

#7. A Summary of ‘The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good for You)’ by Simon Laham

Table of Contents

'The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good for You)' by Simon Laham (Three Rivers Press, 07/02/12)

1. Introduction

2. Lust

3. Gluttony

4. Greed

5. Sloth

6. Anger

7. Envy

8. Pride

9. Conclusion

1. Introduction

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).

In what follows, I will outline the main findings that Simon Laham brings to the table with regards to each of the seven deadly sins in his ‘The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good For You).

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).

2. Lust

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).

3. Gluttony

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).

However, as Laham informs us, the sin of gluttony was originally thought of not as a simple matter of over-consumption, but the disposition to take too much pleasure in eating: “when gluttony was deemed deadly in the Middle Ages, pleasurable overindulgence in food and drink spoke of an ungodly preoccupation with earthly, bodily pleasures, which came at the expense of a more proper focus on the divine and spiritual” (p. 504). While it is the Americans who are most culpable of the first form of gluttony, it is the French who excel in the latter, for, as Laham notes, “the French have a refreshingly insouciant attitude toward the culinary, an attitude that revolves around the pleasures and experience of eating” (loc. 504).

Now, this second (and original) understanding of gluttony would seem to be much easier to defend than the former, for while we may well see the value in treating eating as an aesthetic experience, it is difficult to see the redeeming value in eating unhealthily, or too much (unless this is done very rarely, in which case it is no longer unhealthy eating, or overeating in the true sense that we are after). Given that this is the case, we may expect Laham to focus his attention on defending the latter (and original) form of gluttony, and admit defeat with regards to the first. Laham, though, is too proud to admit defeat here, and indeed does make an effort to defend the first form of gluttony. In doing so, though, Laham recasts the debate not in terms of eating too much and/or unhealthily versus eating a healthy and appropriate amount, but in terms of the relative ills of eating too much versus dieting and eating too little. As Laham explains it, “what we should be asking is not whether eating too much is bad (it is by definition, given the negative judgment implied by ‘too much’), but whether eating more is worse than eating less” (loc. 587).

Now, this maneuver may seem innocent enough. However, in recasting the debate in this manner, Laham is essentially giving up on making a defence of gluttony. For indeed, to argue that the opposite of x is worse than x does demonstrate that x is in any way good, yet this is precisely what the author is doing here.

At any rate, Laham goes on to enumerate all of the ways that eating too little is bad for you, and that having a sufficient amount of energy in your blood is necessary for all sorts of good things, like proper mental executive functioning (loc. 599-610), exercising self-control (loc. 617), proper regulation of attention and emotion (loc. 643), better memory and reaction times (loc. 643), coping with stress (loc. 648), and even suppressing stereotypes (loc. 670).

Having outlined the benefits of getting enough to eat, and the ills of dieting and fasting, we would expect Laham to go on to address the ills of overeating and/or eating an unhealthy diet that we may be convinced that this approach to food is truly not as bad as the former (since this was the author’s stated intention). However, Laham give us no such discussion. Apparently we are meant to be convinced that under-eating is worse than overeating based on the dangers of under-eating alone.

Now, perhaps under-eating is worse than overeating, and perhaps it is beneficial that we be reminded of the ills of dieting and fasting; however, to do so in a discussion that is ostensibly meant to extol the virtues of the seven deadly sins is, it must be said, entirely out of place, and reeks of sophistry.

In any event, Laham next goes on to defend the second (and original) sense of gluttony—that of taking too much pleasure in eating. Now, it goes without saying that most of us nowadays see nothing wrong with taking pleasure in food. Indeed, those who are interested in and enjoy the aesthetics of food are touted by both themselves and others as ‘foodies’, or ‘gourmands’, and cooking shows, and the celebrity chefs that front them are as popular as ever. This being the case, Laham does not exactly have his work cut out for him in convincing us that taking deep pleasure in food is in fact a virtue. Nevertheless, it appears that science has very little to say about the issue, for the author confines his discussion to the discoveries that consuming a variety of foods at a single sitting leads to greater satisfaction (loc. 788-93), and that eating food and drinking beverages that we think are more expensive heightens the dining experience (loc. 736) (though, again, it is debatable whether the fact that we can be tricked into thinking that our food and drink is tastier just because we think it is more expensive is in fact a good thing).

The chapter ends with Laham waxing poetic about the French, and their enlightened view of food: “the French have retained much of what is meaningful, pleasurable, and social about eating. They remain true gourmands, true gluttons… They value experience, not consequence; sociality, not isolation; sensible variety, rather than plainness and monotony. And if this is what gluttony looks like, then I’d happily join the ranks of the French on their gluttonous descent into hell” (loc. 861).

As the reader may have guessed, I was not terribly impressed with Laham’s defence of gluttony. Thankfully, this was the least compelling of the chapters in the book, and the argument largely improves from here.

4. Greed

Despite the ‘greed is good’ mantra espoused by some (and particularly popular in the 1980’s), most agree that an overblown interest in acquiring monetary wealth is a negative (loc. 877). Of particular concern here is the fact that money can be earned by foul means as well as fair, and therefore, there is the very real threat that an excessive interest in accumulating it may lead to injustice (loc. 882). Indeed, in that most famous painting about the seven deadly sins, Hieronymus Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, “greed is personified as a bribe-taking judge, accepting payment with one hand while condemning a petitioner with the other. In choosing cash over justice” Laham explain, “the judge succumbs to money’s all-powerful corrupting influence” (loc. 882).

As the author points out, though, the desire for money need not lead to injustice (loc. 882), and can, in fact, induce many good qualities within us. Greed is perhaps best studied in the field (and we will turn to these studies in a moment), but it can also be studied in the lab. In order to do so, scientists first prime subjects with thoughts of money and accumulating wealth (normally in sneaky ways, wherein the subjects themselves don’t even know they have been primed—such as by having them rearrange word sequences into sentences, where the word sequences have a significant number of money related terms in them [loc. 1126], or having  subjects  play monopoly [loc. 1183], or imagine a future full of riches [loc. 1183]). Once scientists have primed subjects in this way, they then sit back and see what happens. As it turns out, priming subjects with money has many interesting effects.

In one study, money-primed subjects were shown to be much more persevering when it came to solving mental challenges that they were subsequently met with than those who were not primed in this way. Speaking of one such mental challenge, Laham reports that “after about only four minutes, the task had most people in the control condition (those who unscrambled sentences without money words) bewildered, and almost 75 percent had asked for help. People in the money-priming condition, however, were a lot more persistent—only after eight minutes had 75 percent of these participants sought help with the task” (loc. 1143). In order to make sense of why, the social psychologist who ran the experiment, Kathleen Vohs, suggested that “money priming makes people self-sufficient, which… involves ‘an emphasis on behaviours of one’s own choosing accomplished without active involvement from others’. In such a mind-set” Vohs argues, “people aren’t likely to ask for help, preferring to rely instead on their own abilities” (loc. 1144).

In a follow-up experiment, Vohs discovered that money-primed subjects not only demonstrate more perseverance, but also exhibit a higher pain threshold. Indeed, money-primed subjects reported less pain than control subjects when their hands were subsequently plunged into hot water (loc. 1149) (apparently, mining psychological truths sometimes require extreme measures!). Even more surprisingly, money primed-subjects also exhibited a greater imperviousness to emotional pain. Indeed, in an experiment where subjects “perform[ed] a social interaction task in which they were socially excluded… once again, the money-primed participants were better off: They felt less hurt after being ostracized than those who [were not]” (loc. 1160). This being the case, it appears that money on the brain not only makes us more persevering, but also equips us to be able to overcome obstacles of all sorts (including our own physical and emotional discomfort).

The fact that money can act as a motivator and help us work harder has been shown outside of the lab as well (loc. 976-1015) (not that this should come as any surprise to us). However, there is one very important corollary to offering money as a motivator that should be addressed here. And that is that offering someone a monetary reward for completing a task tends to decreases any interest that that person may have had in performing the task for its own sake, or for the simple fun of it (loc. 1045). As Laham explains, “the reason is simple enough. If on sees oneself [say] solving puzzles for money, then one comes to think that the only reason for solving puzzles is money” (loc. 1045). Given that this is the case, the simple lesson to draw from this is that “if you start paying for performance, you had better keep paying” (loc. 1050).

Returning to the money-primed for a moment, though, it turns out that things aren’t all as rosy here as we might have hoped. Indeed, in a follow up study to those mentioned above, Vohs discovered that money-primed subjects are less helpful than control participants (loc. 1177-93). Indeed, in a clever experiment wherein a confederate was made to spill  a box of pencils as she was passing by experiment subjects in a hall (right on cue), “the money-primed participants picked up significantly fewer pencils than those in the control condition” (loc. 1189). Also, money-primed subjects show less ability to take the perspective of others (that is, see thing from their point-of-view) than control participants (loc. 1165-77). These experiments seem to bear out our common sense notion that the money-obsessed are more selfish and less empathic than those who are less greedy (loc. 1160).

So, an interest in money seems to induce both positive and negative qualities, but can money bring happiness? The received wisdom on this question is of course, no, it cannot. But the science here is a little more ambiguous. To begin with, there is, in fact, a correlation between wealth and happiness: “rich countries are happier than poor countries and, within the borders of any one nation, the haves are happier than the have-nots. What’s more… the rich are more satisfied with their lives, they have more positive experiences, they feel more enjoyment, and they experience less boredom, depression, and sadness than the poor” (loc. 894).

So, money does seem to contribute to happiness to a degree. Having said that, however, we also have every reason to believe that money is not the only, or even the most important (or even near the top of the list), when it comes to things that contribute to our happiness. Indeed, psychologists have long known that the number and quality of our personal relationships is far and away the most important factor in our happiness; and enjoyment at work, and health also outrank wealth in terms of our overall well-being (loc. 952). So if you pursue money to the exclusion of social relationships, or you do so despite working a job that you dislike, or you do so to the detriment of your health, then you may be in for less happiness than you bargained for.

As a final point here, it should be noted that what you spend your money can make a big difference in terms of your overall happiness. Studies indicate that people gain much more well-being when they spend their money on activities (such as going out to a restaurant or a concert, or on a ski trip or other type of vacation), than when they spend it on material possessions (such as jewellery, cars and clothing) (loc. 923). There are two main reasons why this seems to be the case. First, the things that we do and the activities that we engage in are simply a stronger manifestation of who we really are than our material possessions (loc. 928). Second, activities tend to be shared with other people, “and because other people play such a large role in our happiness, shared experiences contribute substantially to our well-being” (loc. 935).

5. Sloth

Most of us don’t use the word ‘sloth’ anymore; rather, we say ‘lazy’. Normally, we apply this word to people who like to avoid work—and not just the paid variety, but also exercise, and generally anything that involves any sort of exertion, mental or physical. The lazy tend to prefer less productive endeavours, such as watching television, playing video games, surfing the web for silly material, texting their friends (I’m a high school teacher, I know this one well), or even just daydreaming and/or sleeping the day away.

Interestingly, the sin of sloth was originally very different from the conception we have of it nowadays. It even had a different name: it was called ‘acedia’. Acedia is a Latin word meaning “a kind of spiritual laziness, malaise, or despair” (loc. 1228). In this sense, then, the slothful are those who lack a sufficient dedication and commitment to things spiritual, meaning religion, and who may even be disposed to questioning their faith. As Laham explains, “religious leaders didn’t want their followers walking off into the godless desert after the midday meal, abandoning faith and fellow monks. So they institutionalized acedia as a mortal sin” (loc. 1239).

Apparently, acedia was downgraded to sloth partially out of a lazy approach to semantics by the Catholic Church (loc. 1239), and partly due to the influence of the Protestant Reformation. With regards to the latter, Laham reminds us that “with the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century came the equation of work with salvation, an equation that the great German sociologist Max Weber dubbed the ‘Protestant work ethic’” (loc. 1244). From this time forward, sloth came to be considered a kind of economic sin. And it is this version of the sin, the author claims, that holds sway today: “any taking it easy that occurs is less likely to be seen as an offense against God than as an offense against the economy. It is not the health of the sinner’s soul that contemporary antisloth moralists worry about, but the health of the bottom line” (loc. 1244). It is this version of the sin that Laham focuses on here.

As we have seen above, the slothful tend to be particularly fond of sleep. This being the case, Laham begins his defense of slothfulness by way of outlining the many benefits of slumber. As many of you no doubt know, sleep is extremely important, and it is not wise to stint on your beauty rest. However, it is quite a stretch to think that drawing attention to the advantages of sleep amounts to a defense of slothfulness, for lauding the benefits of getting an adequate amount of sleep in no way implies that you should be spending all day in bed. This being the case, I will not spend a great deal of time on this topic. Nevertheless, Laham does offer up one of the best hypotheses for explaining why we dream that I have come across, and I would like to take a moment to go through it now.

As it turns out, sleep is particularly crucial in giving our brains the opportunity to weed out the exceptionally useful experiences that we have had during the day, and of committing these experiences to long-term memory (loc. 1268, 1300). In addition to committing our important experiences to long-term memory, the sleeping brain also lays down neural networks between the prominent concepts encountered during the day and other, related concepts stored in different areas of the brain (loc. 1268, 1325, 1353). Given that these two functions appear to be the most important roles of sleep, it has been hypothesized that dreaming may very well be how our minds experience these processes at work. As Laham explains “we don’t have direct experience of memory formation and spreading activation. That’s true. But we might have second-hand experience. Dreams may actually provide a consciously accessible reflection of the brain processes occurring during sleep” (loc. 1363). A little further on, the author writes that “it’s unlikely that dreams somehow cause task improvements. It’s more likely that they reflect the brain processes that lead to performance enhancement. Dreams play out, in images and other sensory phenomena, the processes of gist formation, procedural and declarative memory consolidation, and creative insight that the brain engages in during sleep” (loc. 1374).

In addition to being lovers of sleep, the slothful are also known for their tendency to drift off in bouts of daydreaming. Unlike sleep—which most of us recognize as being necessary for normal functioning—we are likely to consider daydreaming to be the very epitome of unproductive and useless activity. As it turns out, though, daydreaming may have a very important purpose. As Laham informs us, daydreaming appears to be the default state of the brain: it is what the brain does when it “is not occupied with external processing demands” (loc. 1413). As we can all attest to, when our mind wanders it tends to wander to things that are of particular importance to us, such as “our future plans, our everyday problems, our memories” (loc. 1392). What’s more, it has been observed that when these issues do come up in our daydreams, our run-away mind is often considering different ways of how we might best resolve, or cope with them (another thing that we can attest to) (loc. 1397). As Laham explains, “this suggests that the wandering mind might actually be off searching for ways to cope with the stresses of everyday life. You may not know exactly how to deal with your man troubles, but your wandering mind is working on it” (loc. 1397). Insofar as our daydreaming minds can help us cope with, and come up with solutions to our everyday stresses, then yes, we should grant that being slothful is not always so bad.

The sloth’s fondness for daydreaming is indicative of another trait that is associated with him, and that is his inclination to avoid deep thought and rumination. If the sloth could get away with it, he would probably be happy to leave as much thinking to his unconscious mind as he could, thus allowing more time for activity of a less imposing nature, such as watching television, or doodling (loc. 1432). As it turns out, this might not be as bad an idea as it first appears. Indeed, as has been made famous by the Malcolm Gladwell book ‘Blink’, unconscious thought is actually very efficient, and is often even more efficient than conscious thought (loc. 1445). For example, several studies have demonstrated that being introduced to a problem, and then being distracted with a separate task to allow the unconscious mind to mull over the problem, leads to a better judgement or decision than being allowed to deliberate over the problem consciously (loc. 1456). The reason why, it is thought, is because the conscious mind is susceptible to decision biases, which the unconscious mind is not: “when we consciously deliberate about a choice, we tend to put undue weight on attributes that are accessible, plausible, and easy to verbalize. And doing this can lead to preferences and decisions that are less than perfect” (loc. 1471). (What is not mentioned here, though, and is also not mentioned in the book ‘Blink’ [though it is mentioned in the book-length response to ‘Blink’ by Michael LeGault, called ‘Think’], is that unconscious problem solving is improved the more the subject has previously put in the time to learn and think reflectively about the subject matter at hand. So the sloth may be best off putting in his 10 000 hours after all).

Perhaps the greatest edge that the sloth has over the more productive, though, is his willingness to help others out. Indeed, the lazy person is not in as much a hurry as most others, and, as we might expect, this leaves him with more time, and a greater openness to helping others in need. And this is exactly what scientists found. Indeed, people who live in cities where the inhabitants move slower (as measured by walking rates) are more helpful than those who live in cities where the pace is quicker (as measured by willingness to do such things as help a confederate pick up a pile of spilled pencils, or magazines, or provide change for a dollar) (loc. 1572-77). And subjects (in fact seminary students) in whom scientists elicited rushing were less helpful than control participants (loc. 1582). So take heart lazzies (if you can muster the energy to do so), you’re not as bad as some make out. Just don’t overdo it, or, as Laham says, “you’ll never get anything done” (loc. 1625).

6. Anger

Probably the biggest reason why anger is now, and has ever been considered something to be controlled (managed, nowadays), if not avoided altogether, is because of its tendency to lead to violence. Indeed, in Medieval representations of this sin, including Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, wrath is depicted as a raving maniac wielding a sword—most often attacking a seemingly innocent victim (so long as wearing a table on your head can be considered innocent) (loc. 1638). And even today, anger tends to be closely associated with violence in our minds (loc. 1634-38). However, as Laham points out, anger and violence are not the same thing, and in fact anger seldom leads to violence. “In Fact”, the author explains “one estimate suggests that violence follows anger in only about 10 percent of cases; another estimate puts it as low as 2 percent. Anger is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of violent behaviour” (loc. 1649).

Nevertheless, even when anger does not lead to violence, we are not likely to think of it as a very productive emotion. ‘Living well is the best revenge’ it is said. That is, don’t waste your time getting angry with people or things, it’s just a waste of time, and redirects your energy away from your own proper affairs, which are more important anyway. As it turns out, though, anger may in fact be a good motivator in advancing our own affairs after all. For instance, in one experiment, scientists challenged subjects with a series of puzzles (which puzzles actually had no solutions, not that the subjects were aware of this) (loc. 1665). Clearly, being defeated by puzzle after puzzle is a frustrating experience. However, the subjects reacted in different ways to their failures: some reacted with dejection, while others reacted with anger. When the subjects were subsequently met with another puzzle (this time with a solution), “those who felt anger performed better. They persisted longer at this second task, and their persistence paid off” (loc. 1671). As we can see, then, anger motivates us to get right back after we have fallen down, and to persevere in the face of adversity. As Laham puts it, “anger is both a gauge of our progress toward a goal and a force that makes us persist in the face of obstacles” (loc. 1682).

Anger has also been shown to aid performance in competitive challenges (such as playing certain types of video games) (loc. 1709). However, it can backfire in tasks that do not require competition (such as waiting tables) (loc. 1714).

It is not difficult to see why anger might act as a motivator for us in certain circumstances. However, it is interesting to see how, precisely, it does this. As it turns out, anger makes us more optimistic about the future; and there are two reasons in particular why anger has this effect. First, anger makes us focus more on the positive aspects (or rewards) in the environment (loc. 1740-45); and second, anger makes us believe that we have greater control over the events in our lives. Indeed, one study found that “angry people were more optimistic about their futures than were fearful people… [and] angry people also saw future events as more controllable than did the fearful. The researchers also showed, statistically, that participants were more optimistic because they felt more control” (loc. 1773).

On a separate note, while anger is often considered to be anathema to healthy relationships, recent studies have revealed that this is not entirely the case. For instance, “in a study by Howard Kassinove of Hofstra University… when about 750 people were asked to think about recent anger episodes in close relationships, over half (55 percent) reported positive outcomes” (loc. 1967). Now, 55% positive outcomes may not sound all that great, but it turns out that the way that anger is expressed is also a key factor here. That is, when anger is expressed as being excessively demanding and blaming (or worse, yelling and screaming) positive outcomes plummet. But when anger is focussed into calmly discussing the reasons behind one’s rage, respondents “were twice as likely to report long-term positive outcomes” (loc. 1973). So having things out—as long as it is done in a reasonable, respectful way—may be a good thing after all.

Part of the reason why anger may have the positive effects that it does in our relationships is because it can actually make us more receptive to alternative and opposing points of view. This is counter-intuitive because we tend to think of angry people as being incapable of appreciating their interlocutors’ position. Again, though, it seems to depend on how anger is expressed. People who go off the deep end are not likely to question their own beliefs; however, if we can manage to subdue our anger before it reaches this point, just the opposite occurs. Indeed, one study found that subjects who were primed with anger were more likely to be open to reading articles that contained a view-point that was opposed to their own (loc. 1798). What’s more, after reading articles with opposing view-points, anger-primed subjects were more likely to modify their opinions based on the information contained therein (loc. 1804).

Part of the reason why this may occur is because anger not only makes us more confrontational, but getting revved up for an argument may make us more analytical as well (sometimes to the detriment of our initial view-point). In support of this hypothesis, “work by Wesley Moons and Diane Mackie, both from UC Santa Barbara… show[ed] that angry people are more sensitive to argument quality, and are persuaded only when disconfirming information is of a high standard” (loc. 1809).

A final manner in which anger may serve a fruitful end is in the fact that it makes us more likely to confront and want to punish moral transgressors (loc. 1874)—even when the rights that the moral transgressor is trampling on are not our own (loc. 1874-9), and even when doing so may compromise or threaten our own well-being (loc. 1874). While confronting a moral transgressor may not always be a risk-free proposition, doing so consistently is necessary in order curb the behaviour of potential knaves, and therefore, moral outrage does ultimately tend to contribute to harmonious group living (loc. 1879). However, if this moral outrage is misguided or misplaced (as can happen given our susceptibility to self-serving biases), it can end up doing more harm than good (as is made clear in Steven Pinker’s book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined’).

So go ahead, get angry, “anger promotes adaptive behavioural strategies: persistence, optimism, control, punishment” (loc. 1985). Just don’t go over-board, or your anger “may morph these adaptive responses into the maladaptive—persistence into stubbornness, optimism into unwarranted riskiness, control into obsession, punishment into vengeance. As with the other sins, anger must be exercised with caution and a little restraint” (loc. 1985).

7. Envy

Comparing ourselves to others is a natural part of being human. Indeed, it is something that can hardly be helped (loc. 2015). For most of us (sadly), there will always be others who will have more talent, or beauty or wealth than we do. And despite the fact that we are taught to be happy with what we have, we may sometimes find ourselves wishing that we had what they had. This, of course, is envy. But there is another, even darker side to envy, which is when we wish not for what others have, but when we wish that they didn’t have what they have (loc. 1999). This latter is what psychologists call malicious envy, and, as you may have guessed, not much good can come from it. With regards to the first variety of envy, though, it seems that it may have a positive side after all.

To begin with, it turns out that comparing ourselves with others who are smarter, more creative, talented, or skilled than we are can actually increase these characteristics within us. For instance, in one study, university student subjects who were made to read an article about a particularly over-achieving university student scored higher on a creativity test than those subjects who were made to read an uninspiring article (loc. 2098). In another study, and even more significantly, schoolchildren in Holland were given an opportunity to compare themselves with classmates for a full school year. It turned out that the students typically preferred to compare themselves with others that were performing better than they were. What’s more, “over the course of the year, comparing upward to their better-performing classmates improved students’ grades” (loc. 2109). And similar results to this have been matched in the lab as well. For instance, performance is enhanced “when people perform tedious reaction time tasks with superior partners, or when women are given a math test by a competent rather than an incompetent female experimenter” (loc. 2113).

What explains this phenomenon? Laham identifies three separate factors here. First, observing someone who is more skilled than you are can open your eyes with regards to what is possible or achievable regarding any particular task; “in other words, it can change your perceived likelihood of success” (loc. 2113). Second, and related to the first factor, observing someone who is more skilled than you can provide you with valuable information on how to improve your own performance: “if you have the good fortune to observe a skilled performer, you watch, you learn and so you perform better” (loc. 2113). Finally, observing an expert can provide you with motivation to do better yourself (loc. 2119). Indeed, we will not be discussing pride in detail until the next section, but we can see how it would enter the picture here to help one perform better on any given task.

While it is possible to improve ourselves by way of comparing ourselves with others that are more advanced than we are, it turns out that there are some important caveats here. To begin with, it is crucial that we compare ourselves to those who are in the same category as we are. For instance, when student teachers were asked to compare themselves with accomplished teachers or accomplished accountants, only the subjects who compared themselves with the expert teachers experienced a bump in self-ratings of potential and actual performance (loc. 2130-5). Additionally, you must have some notion that you are capable of attaining the heights that your role model has achieved. For example, when first-year and fourth-year accounting students were made to read an article about an extraordinary fourth year accounting student, “who had a superb academic record and also excelled in extracurricular activities, sports, community service and so on” (loc. 2140), only the first-year students were buoyed by the story. The fourth-year students were not (loc. 2145-9). Presumably, this was because the first-year students still had the time and opportunity to match the heights of the envied, while the fourth year students did not (loc. 2145).

So, if you wish to improve yourself through envy, make sure you choose a role model in the same category as you are, and make sure that there is at least some sense in which you can hope to match them and/or their qualities. Oh, and as for those whom you have no hope of ever matching, don’t bother wishing for their demise, that’s not going to help you at all.

8. Pride

We have come, at last, to our seventh and final sin: pride. There is a real paradox with this sin. To begin with, many of us will likely have difficulty considering pride to be a vice at all. Indeed, pride speaks of a sense of satisfaction with one’s efforts and accomplishments, and there is nothing that seems particularly offensive about that. And yet pride is not only considered a sin, but one of the seven deadliest at that, and in fact the deadliest of them all! To be sure, since the time of Pope Gregory in 590 A.D. pride has been considered “the source from which all other vices derived their wickedness… in fact, Gregory thought pride too insidious to rank with other deadlies, so he actually took it off the list, christening it both the root of all evil and the queen of sin” (loc. 2281). So what gives? What’s all the fuss about pride??

Well, to begin with, we should be reminded that there are two, slightly different senses of the word ‘pride’. The first is outlined above. The second is related to the first, but is somewhat more exaggerated, and refers to a kind of arrogance, conceitedness, and even hubris (loc. 2286-2321). Whereas the first form of pride is generated out of a sense of satisfaction with one’s genuine accomplishments (and is, therefore, proportional and well-earned” (loc. 2325)), the second form of pride “comes about when one attributes success not to effort, but to stable internal causes such as talent or skill or, indeed, good looks” (loc 2492). As such, this second kind of pride is more cockiness than anything. As you will recognize, this latter sense of pride is somewhat less innocent than the former (psychologists have even given them separate names. The first is known as ‘authentic pride’, while the second is known as ‘hubristic pride’).

Still though, the deadliest sin of them all? In order to make sense of this, we should be reminded of the central role that humility plays in the Christian religion. Indeed, the importance of humility, and the danger of its opposite, pride, is exemplified nowhere better than in the story of Satan. Satan, the very embodiment of evil in the Christian faith, fell from grace because he was so bold as to think that he was really something, and indeed a match for God (this made him dare to challenge God, which did not turn out so well for Satan).

Christians are expected to be un-Satan-like, and recognize that there is someone so great (in God), that there is no need to go and think too highly of themselves. This mind-set is also believed to make people more amenable to being respectful and charitable towards others here on earth, and so is welcomed on this count as well. In this light, then, we can begin to understand why pride is not only considered to be a deadly sin, but is thought of as the biggest, baddest, mother of them all.

So, pride is public enemy number one in the Christian faith, but how does it fare in the realm of psychology? Well, that depends on what kind of pride we’re talking about. As mentioned above, there are two somewhat different senses of the word ‘pride’. Not surprisingly, authentic pride is much healthier than the hubristic variety. As Laham explains, “the authentically proud are more extroverted, more agreeable, more emotionally stable, conscientious, and open to new experiences. The list goes on: less depression, social phobia, anxiety, and aggression, and more relationship satisfaction and social support. The proud also have higher self-esteem, which itself has a few things going for it (greater happiness, for one)” (loc. 2341).

On the other hand, the hubristically proud “tend to be more aggressive, more socially phobic, and more anxious than those who aren’t. They also tend to have poorer relationships and feel less supported by those around them” (loc. 2498). And last, but not least, the hubristically proud are also more prejudiced (loc. 2498). So, when it comes to pride, invest in the authentic variety (by way of dedicating time and effort to endeavours that are meaningful and worthwhile—advancements and accomplishments in which are bound to give you a true and genuine sense of self-worth), and leave the hubris out, and you should be just fine.

Interestingly, pride not only emerges out of effort and persistence in accomplishing a goal, but, when it is induced artificially, can actually bolster perseverance in itself. Indeed, when experimenters induced pride in certain subjects (by way of lying to them about how well they did on difficult tests and tasks [loc. 2361]) these subjects persisted longer in a subsequent task than those whose pride had not been inflated: “proud participants spent about seven minutes working on the task. Control participants, who received no smiling, gesticulating pride inducement, could stomach it for only five minutes” (loc. 2370). What’s more, this persistence enhancing effect has also been induced in a more natural environment, in the real world, in a business setting (loc. 2376). And in this case, inflated pride not only increased perseverance, but (as we might well expect from increased persistence) increased performance as well (loc. 2382).

So, just how does pride increase perseverance, and, ultimately, performance? Apparently, an important part of what pride consists in is a belief that one is in control of events in one’s life. Indeed, when experimenters asked subjects questions regarding the level of control that they felt they had over events in their lives, pride-primed subjects reported a greater sense of control than the non-pride-primed: “pride changed the way that participants thought about the situation. The proud believed that it was their own actions that brought about success, and these feelings of efficacy and control improved performance” (loc. 2398). As you will recall, this is precisely what occurred in the case of the anger-primed. The angry felt as though they had more control over events in their lives, and this led them to demonstrate greater perseverance in subsequent tasks. Pride, like anger, “changes the way we think, giving us a greater sense of confidence and control, which in turn makes us persevere, increasing the chances of further pride” (loc. 2403), and, of course, less anger.

9. Conclusion

So there we have it. While there are certainly aspects of the seven deadly sins that are worth avoiding, it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. That is, it is important to recognize that there are aspects of the seven deadly sins which, when approached in the right kind of way, can be a boon both to yourself and those around you. As Laham sums things up, “the ability to judge a behaviour as black or white, as obviously right or wrong, does simplify life quite a bit. But as we’ve seen with the traditional deadly sins, the reality is much more complex. Simplistic categorization of social and psychological phenomena into ‘sins’ and ‘virtues,’ into the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ strips human action of its inherent and fascinating richness. What’s more, it marginalizes ‘sinners’ and hampers serious and sophisticated discourse” (loc. 2690).

*Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you have enjoyed this summary of ‘The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good For You)’ by Simon Laham, or just have a thought, please free to leave a comment below. Also, if you feel others may benefit from this article, please feel free to click on the g+1 symbol below, or share it on one of the umpteen social networking sites hidden beneath the ‘share’ button.



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