Psychological validity of the "Seven deadly sins"?

by InquilineKea1 min read17th Mar 201526 comments


Personal Blog

So I was reading the list of and I was impressed with the list (seeing how many of these sins are what ultimately bring down many major historical figures). I also recognize how many of these sins were responsible for some of my major setbacks in life, and am thinking of creative ways to reduce their effects (by putting value on things that don't involve any of those sins).

I'm curious: to what extent do the "seven deadly sins" cover the most common reasons why people engage in self-defeating behavior? Are there any major omissions in the list of "seven deadly sins"? If you were to make a list of "X deadly sins", which sins would you include?

As examples: should excessive guilt be counted as a sin? Should stupidity be counted as a sin? What about being excessively "autistic"?

Which of the "Seven deadly sins" do you think are most applicable to LessWrong posters? To what extent are they responsible for akrasia?

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[-][anonymous]6y 6

Going meta: just because we don't believe the myth that lighting is Jupiter's arrow, it does not mean we should doubt lighting is a real phenomenon. Just because we don't believe the mythical explanation behind Original Sin (i.e. Adam and Eve), it does not mean we should assume Original Sin is not a real phenomenon. Non-mythical Original Sin is largely the idea that human nature has factory bugs (see: biases) (probably due to not being evolved for a civilized life), that it manifests itself in being too vulnerable to temptations (see akrasia), that one common way it manifests is the three libidos (Augustine): desire for sex, power and money going beyond rational limits and becoming destructive, and yes Seven Deadlies is another manifestation.

The problem with discussing the utility of religious ideas for atheists in English is that apparently a lot of English speaking people were exposed to literalist, fundamentalist versions of religion and tend to assume it is all made up, instead of being just mythical explanations of perfectly real phenomena. In other words, English speaking people tend to assume actual experience, historical experience, historical testing of what works has no effect on religion when of course it does. Catholicism got paganized enough to be pragmatic, to focus on creating mystical explanations for real, actual, functional experiences and problems instead of making everything up from the ground up. The make everything up stuff largely began with Calvin and Protestantism because they took the Old Testament too seriously, which is way, way more made up than say Thomism. It was quite simply a regression towards a much earlier stage.

At any rate, this kind of psychology can possibly work. If we use our model a pre-Calvin Christianity which looks for mystical explanations for real problems, and the set of real problems and their properties it updates as historical experience demands to, when they no longer seem functional, then we can use it basically as a database of psychological experiences during the middle ages.

Interesting. Where would you put Eastern Orthodox Christianity? As it manifests in my country, it seems closer to literalism and fundamentalism than to any sort of theological sophistication. People's religious practices around holidays and such, especially in rural areas, get heavily mixed with magical and superstitious practices; old and sickly people form huge queues for the better part of a day, in hostile weather conditions, to worship and kiss encased saint corpses which they believe have magical healing properties; nothing "sells" a saint's biography better than miracles performed and extreme acts of abstinence. I've talked to people with a higher education that believed in literal ancient giants, because the Bible claimed they literally existed. People observe the trappings of spirituality more than spirituality itself, taking more care to, for instance, eat all-vegan during days of fasting, keep their heads covered even outside church (most women past the age of 65) and go to church every Sunday (and more often than that, in fact) than to refrain from lashing out in anger at others or to perform altruistic acts. And as far as church dogma goes, the ideal of the Eastern Orthodox Church seems to be to maintain its faithful in a Byzantine stasis; if it was right between 300-900 A.D., it's right now. Probably its most progressive act in recent times was to get itself official TV and radio posts (despite technology being the devil and all that), to propagate its message more effectively and to give religious people "holy" alternatives to watch/listen to.

I'm not too well-versed in the sociology of religion, just a casual observer of the craziness around me, but religion as it appears in my country seems positively medieval. The West seems to have it much better, even the backwater parts of America.

[-][anonymous]6y 3

Sorry for the late answer. It is kinda weird. On the elite level, say, monks of old times, the Eastern Orthodox is the least-conventionally religious and most spiritual/esoteric form of mainstream Christianity, for example I have read somewhere the word they use for faith, pistei, is not simply belief, but more like a form of action. Yet, in practice, EO tends to be seriously weird.

My opinion is that EO was corrupted beyond recognition by heavily entanglement of particularly brutal forms of statism, tyrannical tzarism and so on, actually going back to Byzantine times.

I would not call EO medieval. Medieval or Middle Ages is a Western, Roman Catholic concept, and one of the major characterisics is the weakening of state power, basically kings not being too powerful (as opposed to barons). Now it seems to me EO kept on operating withing a framework of very strong state power and very centralized organization, from Bzyantine basileoi to Tzars, and in this sense never really entered the Middle Ages but more like stayed in the age of caesars.

I think it is all related. A very hierarchical social framework does not really demand or allow the common folk to smart up. If there is not much social mobility the peasants may as well believe bullshit as long as they work hard. It is the breakup or weaking and flexibilizing of social hierarchies such as weak medieval royal power and barons and bishops going their own way that makes it useful to try getting more rational.

Very insightful, thank you for the explanation. Yes, this entanglement with state power is something I've noticed myself (although I've had more opportunity to observe the Church's relationship with more recent regimes). Here, Orthodox Christianity is as much of an official state religion as you could get in a European country. The Patriarch is present at most important non-religious events; a Church representative was there at the opening of my university year (and I mean, I'm in engineering, he had no inherent business being there). Politicians use the mass appeal of the Orthodox faith to win sympathisers during elections, and people care very much about non-mainstream religious affiliations of rulers -- anything non-Orthodox is bound to reflect badly on them. There's a huge cathedral being built somewhere in my city, and I just recently found out that it was being built within the perimeter of the seat of government... talk about caesaropapism, now they made it official! In high school there was a sort of essay I had to make for the religious education class I had been forced into, and when I said I was going to write on Church activity during the Communist era, all the teachers were on me to coerce me into only highlighting how badly the Church got oppressed by the regime, and not mentioning a word on all the collaboration some priests did with it. Apparently my business there was earning them sympathy. This is about how much power they have.

Interesting how you connect historical decentralization to the onset of the Middle Ages, thus claiming that Eastern Orthodoxy is not even medieval (I never really thought of how there might have been no exact Eastern European equivalent to the medieval era, just took the whole thing chronologically), and then that to a betterment in the intellectual condition of the populace. Some people say that, from a sociological point of view, it was Orthodoxy holding us back; just like how (I think) Weber claimed that Protestantism favoured the development of capitalism in the West (mostly countries with a Germanic language, it seems to me), so it might be that some specifically Orthodox paradigms which bled into non-religious aspects of life were what stopped Eastern Europe from witnessing the same rhythm of development as Western or Central or even Southern Europe. I don't know what those are, but it doesn't seem implausible to me.

[-][anonymous]6y 0

I think what I proposed is a factor, but it does not explain everything. While the medieval decentralisation of Germany, Italy, or even France (where Burgundy could wage war against his liege and it was not really seen as something abnormal, or how pairage / peerage meant in a sense being equal to the king), Hungary was about as Catholic as it comes and yet it was more centralized, at the very least beginning with the Anjou era in Hungary, Caroberto. In fact the Hungarian pattern seems similar to the Eastern Orthodox one, just Catholicized. E.g. at 20th Aug the birthday of the country the embalmed right hand of King Saint Stephen is carried around in a procession by bishops. A very clear unity of throne and altar.

I think the chain of causality is closer to factor X -> decentralisation, weakening of state power -> religion keeps some distance from the state, rather than religious statism preserving the strength of the state. But I have no idea what the factor X may be.

That's a pretty great explanation on how the Eastern Orthodox get to be so weird. When Church and State become really closely related both get pretty effed up. I like that you pointed out Byzantium was the continuation of the Roman Empire and thus had caesars/ basileoi and a pretty hierarchical social structure. Your byzantine history is spot on. I guess education didn't improve much since their monastic orders were into mystical theology.Thanks for the lesson!

The American Orthodox Churches are not nearly as weird and tend to be a little more intellectually sophisticated and democratic. One their best writers is David Bentley Hart. He's actually a pretty good thinker to wrestle with. If you, like me, prefer reading each factions best thinkers, I'd read some him.

I think there is always a distinction between the folk version of a religion and its intelligentsia. The same goes for all factions I assume. From capitalism and communism to Baptists and Democrats, there are always the ruddy followers and the intelligent skeptics.

As it manifests in my country, it seems closer to literalism and fundamentalism than to any sort of theological sophistication. People's religious practices around holidays and such, especially in rural areas, get heavily mixed with magical and superstitious practices; old and sickly people form huge queues for the better part of a day, in hostile weather conditions, to worship and kiss encased saint corpses which they believe have magical healing properties; nothing "sells" a saint's biography better than miracles performed and extreme acts of abstinence.

That's not literalism. If you look in the bible you will find nothing about the healing properties of saints' corpses or nearly all of the superstitions you observe. These traditions are in fact examples of a paganized legacy.

I'll take your word for it, I have never read the entire Bible. It's typical of Eastern Orthodox Christianity to accept a much larger body of traditions than the Scriptures in what it considers "canon"; basically almost all the church activity during the Byzantine Empire (minus, majorly, the iconoclastic period), with a few pre-Schism Western influences. I get that Protestantism and its derivatives reject church tradition (?), while Catholicism has its own unique tradition, developed in parallel and on different lines than Orthodoxy. That's what paganization means, accepting non-Bible influences into a Christian religion? (Going by the name, I thought it meant including influences of polytheistic pre-Christian religions.)

Going by the name, I thought it meant including influences of polytheistic pre-Christian religions.

Yes, much veneration of Saints is the syncretized version of the worship of pre-Christian gods.

Dante's Purgatory has a number of discourses on the seven deadly sins that clarify a few things.

It's emphasized that the objects of the seven deadly sins aren't necessarily bad--quite the contrary. Self-love is a good thing, but taken to excess becomes pride. Friendly competition can inspire and drive you to do better, but that's also the road to envy. There's nothing inherently wrong with food, lovin', or material goods, until you overindulge and let them warp your life.

So he [Virgil] began: "Never, my son, was yet
Creator, no, nor creature, without love
Natural or rational--and thous knowest it.

The natural cannot make an erring move;
The other may, either by faulty aim
Or else by too much zeal or lack thereof.

When to the great prime goods it makes full claim,
Or to the lesser goods in measure due,
No sin can come of its delight in them;

Purgatory, Canto XVII, lines 91-99

I'm curious: to what extent do the "seven deadly sins" cover the most common reasons why people engage in self-defeating behavior? Are there any major omissions in the list of "seven deadly sins"? If you were to make a list of "X deadly sins", which sins would you include?

They settled on seven deadly sins to parallel the seven virtues. I think that self-hatred and some other issues relating to depression aren't properly represented, probably on account of depression being poorly understood. A lot of that stuff is put under the umbrella of sloth. It's probably worth adding some distinctions along these lines.

They settled on seven deadly sins to parallel the seven virtues.

I believe it was the other way around, the seven virtues were created to parallel the seven deadly sins. In any case seven was a number with religious significance, e.g., seven days of the week.

There's a couple different lists of seven virtues floating around in Christian tradition. One was created to parallel the seven deadly sins, and works well in that role but less well as a typology of virtue. The other's a slightly clunky melding of the New Testament virtues of faith, hope, and love (or charity) and the much older cardinal virtues (originally Platonic) of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage (or fortitude). That works fairly well as a typology of Christian virtue despite some overlap, but does a much worse job of paralleling the deadly sins.

There's nothing inherently wrong with food, lovin', or material goods, until you overindulge and let them warp your life.

It's basically relatively stable self-regulatory mental (and partly physiological) circuits feedbacking out of control in environments not suited for them. Problem being that we create and game these environments in modern society. On the risk of repeating myself I will point out that this is agains a case of Unfriendly Natural Intelligence.

Ordinary vices discusses some more destructive states: cruelty, hypocrisy, snobbery, betrayal, and misanthropy.

I'm intrigued by the point that if you hate cruelty, you pretty much end up hating the human race.

You can hate cruelty without hating the people who cause it

Yes, St. Augustine mentioned something about that.

Maybe you can. I don't seem to be able to manage it.

And you can hate people causing cruelty without hating cruelty itself (in the sense of cruelty present in a society). One can accept some amount of cruelty as part of the human condition. I can. I mean I do not generically hate people who are cruel as long as I do not know why they are ruel I give them the benefit of the doubt. They may see themselves as the hero of their own story e.g. avenging some wrong or affectfully leashing out. Which I do not condone but which is not bad enough for me to hate.

Well, I'm guilty of 2.5 of those.

I'm curious: to what extent do the "seven deadly sins" cover the most common reasons why people engage in self-defeating behavior?

One of the most interesting sins in this context is "acedia," which is commonly misinterpreted as "laziness." It seems like "depression," seen by moderns as a psychological disorder, is a much closer concept.* If you asked a psychologist for the 'most common reasons people engage in self-defeating behavior,' they would likely start at a list of disorders, and depression typically tops the prevalence lists.

But it doesn't seem to me that other disorders match up well to the sins, or the sins to disorders. I'll also observe several of the sins seem positively approved of by much of modern culture. Capitalists are fans of greed as a drive, and the sex-positive are fans of lust as a drive.

*Wiki thinks this point is contentious, but I think the contention is only applicable if you get into the fine shades of things, not the coarse clusters.

Seligman gives acedia as the main understudied sexual disorder:

The most mysterious and painful and costly sexual problem is "acedia," which means the waning of sexual attraction and passion between married couples as they age. Acedia is is both a physical torpor and the torpor of the soul. It is a sexual indifference that comes from familiarity. Acedia is a sexual disorder since it meets the defining criterion of a disorder, namely, it grossly imparis sexual, affectionate relations between two people who used to have them!

page 173 of What You Can Change and What You Can't by Seligman See also this summary

Buddhism recognizes three poisonous mental states: self-delusion, excessive desire for the liked, and excessive aversion to the disliked. I think the Christian Seven can be reduced to these three.

For an interesting dramatic exploration of the seven deadly sins, I recommend Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's 1933 musical production (a "sung ballet") called The Seven Deadly Sins. It is about a couple of sisters (both named Anna) from Louisiana, who set out from their family home to seek their fortune. The work consists of a set of episodes, one illustrating each of the seven deadly sins. Interestingly, each of the sins is illustrated by what would typically be considered virtuous behavior on the part of one of the sisters.

There is a good staging available on DVD - the Peter Sellars production with the two Annas played by the soprano Teresa Stratus and the dancer Nora Kimball (Kimball plays the virtuous sister). Although the story is set in the US, it is sung in German, but the aforementioned DVD has English subtitles.

The work is IMO quite clever and entertaining, particularly if you like 20th century avant-garde opera.

The Seven Deadly Sins I believe are a helpful way to categorize certain qualities in ourselves that lead to being unsuccessful in one way or another. But with that in mind, I would like to emphasize that while many of our failings might be correlated with these vices, the categorization of the Seven Deadly Sins is not the most scientifically sophisticated method for self-analysis and correction. The concept of Seven Deadly Sins is not by itself prediction of future events nor a corrective regimen. The most common reasons people behave against their own interest is not that they have these seven deadly sins floating inside their minds, but that their impressions of the world are mistaken in some way and they repeatedly react to real-life-situations with anger, envy, sloth. It's these maladaptive impressions or schemas that cause repeated self-defeating emotional and cognitive patterns.

  • A schema is pervasive pattern of memories, emotions, and cognitions regarding oneself and others developed during adolescence and elaborated throughout one's lifetime. When these schemas get triggered by normal daily events and decisions we react in one of three ways: Acceptance of the Schema, Avoidance of the situation, or Overcompensation. In this model there are 18 maladaptive schemas and three ways to react.

  • Excessive feeling of guilt are counted as a sin in the Christian tradition. It is called 'scrupulosity' and considered an aspect of pride. But in cognitive psychology feelings of guilt may be part of a larger Defectiveness Schema or Failure Schema or Self-Sacrifice Schema.

  • The Seven Deadly Sins are part of a larger Christian system of virtues and vices and procedures for increasing the virtues and decreasing the deleterious effects of the vices. In order for something to really be a sin you need to know it's a sin and that it matters and intend it nonetheless. That's three levels. Medieval Christianity makes a useful distinction between grave sins and minor sins. So totally negligent stupidity by failing to live up to your intellectual potential through heavy use of drugs and purposeful rejection of learning would be grave, but a stupid mistake or failing to realize your wife needs some help with the laundry would be a minor sin at most. Through the process of sin taxonomy you know where you stand in relation to the goal. The ultimate goal of the Christian is to increase in charity and contemplation of truths. (Goal difference matters tremendously in assessing a system, and remember the system will never be able to account for these goals by itself!)

  • The Se7en model does not provide a multi-layered insight of how these sins have taken hold on us. How am I continually f*cking up? This is an important question; Se7en provides only a partial answer. It provides a system for classifying our sins and noticing situations where we find ourselves engaging in this poor behavior, but it doesn't offer much more advice than Stoic self-restraint/ grit and avoidance of those situations. The the clinical psychologist goes a step further and provides an overarching narrative to give a better understanding of how/why our failings and behavioral patterns are looping. This method provides more predicative power and more empirically testable hypotheses about how we got to this point than a taxonomy of previous incidents (a purely theoretical model) can provide.

Therapy (self-administered or professionally) tackles large systematic problems before tackling tiny failings (which are unpredictable or symptomatic). Tiny failings are much easier to overcome when our vision of ourselves and the world is closer to reality.

Further Reading: Schema Therapy by Jeff Young, The Screwtape Letters by Lewis, Reinventing Your Life by Jeff Young, The Inferno by Dante Alighieri. I believe these all provide insights into human frailty, something we all wish to overcome!

TL;DL The Seven Deadly Sins might be a useful taxonomy, but it is limited having little predictive power and no falsifiable hypotheses.

BTW, the Less Wrong posters are known for their insatiable lust.

How much do you think the existence of a choice should be a factor in deciding whether something is a sin or not?

[-][anonymous]5y 0

Can anyone think of a natural order for the different kinds of validity? I reckon that would be critical to even getting started on this question.

Remember, as the homepage says, rationality isn't about 'being able to answer any question'.

The important kinds of validity are:

  • discriminant validity
  • nomological validity
  • content validity
  • criterion validity
  • construct validity
  • face validity

If the seven deadly sins are a particular useful construct, I'd hypothesise that they could be mapped to the research domain criteria matrix. The same could be said about constructs like 'rationality'.