Category: Sin Week

Seven ways to be good: 5) Clench your muscles

We tend to associate acts of willpower with people clenching their jaw or fists. A study published last year showed that this muscular tension isn’t merely a side-effect of willpower, it actually helps bolster our self-control [pdf]. Across five studies, Iris Hung at the National University of Singapore and Aparna Labroo at the Booth School of Business showed that various forms of muscle flexion, from fist clenching to calf muscle tightening helped participants to endure pain now for later benefit (e.g. take more time to read a distressing news story about a disaster in Haiti, which in turn led them to give money to a relevant charity in line with how much the story mattered to them); and to resist short- term gain (e.g. snack food) in order to fulfil a long-term gain of better health. Muscle flexing only worked when participants were already motivated. For example, if long- term health was unimportant to them, muscle flexing made no difference. So flexing appears to augment willpower rather than changing motivations and attitudes. Muscle clenching was also only effective when performed at the same time as an act of will.


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Jon Sutton – my Sloth

Dr Jon Sutton is editor of The Psychologist

Straight out of my PhD, I arrived at Glasgow Caledonian University in 1998 to take up a research lectureship. I had a few publications under my belt, and in my first meeting with the Head of Department he said: ‘Well you’ve already fulfilled your quota for the next Research Assessment Exercise – you can relax.’ That was all it took: I opened the door to sloth, and it crawled in.

I loosened that belt a notch, and although I did all that was expected of me in my 18 months north of the border I couldn’t fool myself. I knew I had succumbed to sin. And I think there’s pretty high co-morbidity when it comes to sin: ‘Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do’, and lust, gluttony, pride, greed and envy were all shoe-horned into my one-bedroomed flat in Govanhill. I left wrath outside though, that seemed too much like hard work. As did grant proposals, original thinking and learning how to do something beyond a t-test.

During the PhD, I felt immersed in an individual pursuit with an end, a thesis, in sight. Now this was a ‘proper’ job, and perhaps the extrinsic motivators – the RAE, salary, advancement – served to undermine the intrinsic drive (an idea explored in some classic psychological studies, e.g. Deci, 1971; Lepper et al., 1973). Perhaps the drive to specialise in research and carve out a niche didn’t suit my eclectic (i.e. easily distracted) mind. Perhaps it was actually the variety of routes available to me that led to ‘choice paralysis’ and the failure to choose any of them. Whatever the reality, the narrow path to becoming ‘the bullying guy’ stretched wearily into the horizon of my mind, and my soul grew sluggish and torpid at the thought of the journey.

Operating in a comfort zone, it became too easy to crawl out of bed that little bit later, to slope off to the pub a touch early, to only go to ground to urinate and defecate once a week. (That last one is actual sloths, but you get the idea.) Sloths sometimes remain clinging to the branch after death, and I feared the same fate: in place but inactive. Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas spoke of sloth as ‘sluggishness of the mind’, and I could feel my brain atrophy through lack of use (and sambuca).

So when I heard about the job editing The Psychologist, it appealed in part because I saw a new road, creative possibility, and no hiding place. And so it has proved: a 9-5 daily, weekly, monthly, annual grind, deadline after deadline, constant pressure to produce and develop. Heaven. Because without that, I’m on the highway to hell. At one mile an hour.


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Seven ways to be good: 4) Practise self-control

Willpower is like a muscle – the more you train it, the more powerful it will become, thus helping you to resist the Seven Deadly Sins. For example, in a study published last year, Mark Muraven at the University of Albany had a subset of participants spend two weeks practising acts of self-control, such as resisting eating naughty food. These participants subsequently excelled at a lab measure of self-control compared with their own baseline performance. By contrast, no such improvement was observed among control participants who merely spent the same time completing maths problems (a task which, although onerous, Muraven claims doesn’t depend on the ability to resist impulses) or writing about any incidental acts of self-control they’d achieved. This latter condition was included to ensure that it is specifically the practice of self-control that is beneficial not merely spending time thinking about self-control. Also, participants in all groups were told that their activity would boost self-control, so as to rule out mere expectancy effects.


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Seven new deadly sins: 4) Entitlement

‘Entitlement is the absolutist requirement that all one’s egocentric demands for “justice” not only be fully met, but also be of keen interest to the rest of the world, no matter how trivial and inconsequential the injustices, and irrespective of how great the
redress of perceived inequity has been to-date,’ says Bill Winogron at S4Potential. ‘It’s a close cousin to what American psychologist Albert Ellis more wittily named “Musturbation”.’


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Mark Griffiths – my Pride

Prof Griffiths is at Nottingham Trent Uni

Before writing this blog, I knew very little about ‘The Sin of Pride’. To me it was the title of an LP by The Undertones that I bought in 1983 when I was 16 years old from Castle Records in Loughborough. I perhaps learned a bit more about it when I watched Brad Pitt in the film ‘Se7en’ (which coincidentally just happens to be one of my all-time favourite films).

Since agreeing to write this I did a bit of research on the subject (which admittedly means I did a quick Google search followed by a more considered in-depth search on Google Scholar). While I’m no expert on the topic I can at least have a decent pub conversation about it if anyone is prepared to listen. Just to show my complete ignorance, I wasn’t even aware that the sin of pride is the sin of all sins (although I could in a pub quiz be relied upon to name the seven deadly sins).

I was asked to write on this topic because I was seen as someone who is very proud of the work that I do (and for the record, I am). However, I have often realized that just because I am proud of things that I have done in my academic career it doesn’t necessarily mean others think in the same way. In fact, on some occasions I have been quite taken aback by others’ reactions to things that I have done for which I feel justifiably proud (but more of that later!).

At a very basic level, the sin of pride is rooted in a preoccupation with the self. However, in psychological terms, pride has been defined as ‘a pleasant, sometimes exhilarating, emotion that results from a positive self-evaluation‘ and has been described as one of the three ‘self-conscious’ emotions known to have recognizable expressions (shame and embarrassment being the other two). From my reading of the psychological literature, it could perhaps be argued that pride has been regarded as having a more positive than negative quality, and is usually associated with achievement, high self-esteem and positive self-image – all of which are fundamental to my own thinking. My reading on the topic has also led to the conclusion that pride is sometimes viewed as an ‘intellectual’ or secondary emotion. In practical [psychological] terms, pride is either a high sense of one’s personal status or ego, or the specific mostly positive emotion that is a product of praise or independent self-reflection.

One of the most useful distinctions that can be made about pride (and is rooted in my own personal experience), is what Stephen Lea and Paul Webley (who just happened to be my two PhD supervisors at the University of Exeter) distinguish as ‘proper pride’ and ‘false pride’. They claim that:

‘Proper pride is pride in genuine achievements (or genuine good qualities) that are genuinely one’s own. False pride is pride in what is not an achievement, or not admirable, or does not properly belong to oneself. Proper pride is associated with the desirable property of self-esteem; false pride with vanity or conceit. Proper pride is associated with persistence, endurance and doggedness; false pride with stubbornness, obstinacy and pig-headedness.’

As I noted above, there have been times when I have been immensely proud of doing something only for friends and colleagues to be appalled. ‘Proper pride’ as Lea and Webley would argue. One notable instance was when I wrote a full-page article for The Sun on ‘internet addiction’ published in August 1997. I originally wanted to be a journalist before I became a psychologist, and my journalist friends had always said that to get a full-page ‘by-line’ in the biggest selling newspaper in the UK was a real achievement. I was immensely proud – apart from the headline that a sub-editor had dubbed my piece ‘The Internuts’ – and showed the article to whoever was around.

I had always passionately argued (and still do) that I want my research to be disseminated and read by as many people as possible. What was better than getting my work published in an outlet with (at the time) 10 million readers? My elation was short-lived. One close colleague and friend was very disparaging and asked how I could stoop so low as to “write for the bloody Sun?” Similar comments came from other colleagues and I have to admit that I was put off writing for the national tabloids for a number of years. (However, I am now back writing regularly for the national dailies and am strong enough to defend myself against the detractors).

More recently in 2007, I was invited to the House of Commons by the ex-Leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith and invited to Chair his Centre For Social Justice Working Party on Gambling and write a report as part of the Conservative Party’s ‘Breakthrough Britain’ initiative. Anyone who knows me will attest that my political leanings are left of centre and that my working with the Conservatives on this issue was not something I did without a lot of consideration. I came to the conclusion that gambling was indeed a political issue (rather than a party political issue) and if the Conservative Party saw this as an important issue, I felt duty bound to help given my research experience in the area. I spent a number of months working closely with Iain Duncan Smith’s office and when the report was published I was again very proud of my achievement.

However, as soon as the report came out I received disbelieving and/or snide emails asking how I could have ‘worked with the Conservatives’. I have spent years trying to put the psychosocial impact of gambling on the political agenda. If I am offered further opportunities by those with political clout, I won’t think twice about taking them. I am still immensely proud of such actions despite what others may think.


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Seven new deadly sins: 3) Narcissistic myopia

Tim Kasser at Knox College, Illinois, says Narcissistic Myopia is the tendency to be short-sighted and self-centred, ‘taking whatever one wants now and forgetting that future generations of humans rely on the current generation to leave them a habitable world’.


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Seven ways to be good: 3) Use your inner voice

We’re all familiar with the little voice in our head that tells us not to be naughty. A 2010 study by researchers at the Toronto Laboratory for Social Neuroscience claimed to show this voice really does play a useful role in self-control. Alexa Tullett’s team instructed participants to say the word ‘computer’ repeatedly with their inner voice thereby preventing it from uttering encouraging words of restraint. Doing this compromised the participants’ performance at a concurrent lab test of self-control (the Go/No Go task, which involves withholding key responses on a minority of trials) far more than did a secondary task that merely involved drawing circles. The researchers concluded: ‘[T]his study provides evidence that when we tell ourselves to “keep going” on the treadmill, or when we count to ten during an argument, we may be helping ourselves to successfully overcome our impulses in favour of goals like keeping fit, and preserving a relationship.’ [further information]


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Seven new deadly sins: 2) Iphonophilia

Iphonophilia: ‘The sin of constantly checking one’s smartphone for e- mails/texts/facebook updates, while in conversation with people in the real world,’ says Jessica Tracy at the University of British Columbia. ‘I’m a big fan of these high-tech devices and how much easier they make our lives, but they certainly raise challenges for live interpersonal interactions.’


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Seven ways to be good: 2) Have an energy drink

Roy Baumeister and his collaborators including Matthew Gailliot of Florida State University claim that willpower has a physiological substrate – namely, blood glucose level. In a series of studies published in 2007 they showed that acts of self-control reduce people’s glucose levels and that, in turn, diminished blood glucose is associated with weaker performance on subsequent self-control tasks (PDF). Most importantly for the purpose of being less sinful, they also showed that a high-glucose energy drink can recharge willpower allowing people to be more altruistic. For example, participants who took longer over a psychology exam, and whose energy levels were therefore more depleted, went on to offer less money to charity and less help to a classmate who’d been evicted, unless, that is, they’d had a high-glucose lemonade drink after the exam. By contrast, a low-glucose placebo drink had no such beneficial effect on helping behaviour.


This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Alex Haslam & Steve Reicher – our Envy

Envy subsides as rivals become a team

Envy is a terrible thing and a shameful secret. Which of us has not felt a twinge of envy when a colleague gets a paper published in a journal by which we ourselves have been rejected or when someone else gets a prize to which we ourselves aspire? Who hasn’t smiled and uttered congratulations to the recipient while secretly thinking “Why them? Why not me?”… and then immediately felt rotten for having had these thoughts?

There are few relationships which are immune from such ambivalences – and, since we are in confessional mood, we should admit that this includes our own. The younger of the two of us (Haslam, pictured left, now at the University of Exeter) remembers well the first time that he heard the older one (Reicher) give a seminar at the University of St Andrews, where he is now based. Haslam was an undergraduate there, and Reicher was at the time a post-doc at nearby Dundee. The seminar was delivered with passion and commitment, but Haslam still remembers (with shame) his comment to a peer that the seminar was far too showy for his tastes. “Science should not be confused with entertainment”, he opined dismissively (or something to that effect). In truth, though, this was naked envy.

Now, though, having worked closely with Reicher for the best part of a decade, Haslam boasts of the capacity for his collaborator and friend to entertain and educate the most diverse audiences. And this cuts both ways. Just the other day, Haslam appeared on a radio program talking about work the two of us have done on leadership. Was Reicher envious of his colleague’s limelight? Not at all, he was delighted at the verve and wit with which Haslam argued his case.

Does this mean that we have mellowed over age and become nicer people? We doubt it. For we still rage at the success of certain others and take pleasure when others talk them down. What all this reveals, we think, is not something about us, but something about the nature of envy.

Bertand Russell famously remarked that envy consists of seeing things “never in themselves, but only in their relations”. For those of us who aren’t philosophers, this observation is a little bit cryptic, but its meaning is clarified by the title of a forthcoming book by the Princeton social psychologist Susan Fiske: Envy Up, Scorn Down. As discussed in a recent article in American Psychologist, the core point of Fiske’s work is to show that envy is a phenomenon that is grounded in social comparison. In particular, echoing Francis Bacon, she notes that envy tends to emerge from social comparisons that involve status differences. It arises when individuals (and groups) aspire to the conditions of higher-status others (their privilege, their power, their insouciance) and — potentially at least — are disparaged by those others in turn.

The key term in this analysis is ‘other’. And while Fiske’s own analysis emphasises the point that comparison, and hence envy, are ‘natural’, it is important to note that the definition of ‘other’ is rarely fixed or given. Instead, it is negotiated and it changes over the course of ongoing social relations. This is what emerges from our own personal history as, in time, we became a team. It is also a point that emerges from recent research into emotion (including various forms of envy) by Tony Manstead and Russell Spears at Cardiff University.

Thus, while we may envy a high-status colleague (who appears to find publishing in top-tier journals easier than falling off a log) when comparing ourselves to her as another individual, this envy is likely to morph into admiration when our department is being evaluated for the REF and she becomes ‘one of us’. At this point we may envy other departments who outstrip us, but we are unlikely to envy colleagues within our department.

So is envy a sin? And is this sin deadly? As Fiske observes, envy can be toxic, corrosive, and depressing. As Yugeny Yuvtushenko notes, in its darkest form it is an insult to oneself. But it doesn’t have to be — particularly at the group level when envy is grounded in a legitimate sense of collective injustice, and when we work with others to get over it. The fact that we often do, also tells us something important about ourselves. Not that we are ‘naturally’ sinners, but that the psychological path to virtue is social, developmental, and far from straight and narrow.