American Obessions: Lust, Gluttony & Greed

American Obessions: Lust, Gluttony & Greed

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Lust, gluttony, and greed- three of the seven deadly sins- are considered to be the some of gravest offenses of the human species. Although these vices were originally elements of religions such as Roman Catholicism and Christianity, they have since been ingrained into western culture as immoral. These cardinal sins are not only sins themselves, but have often been thought to incite further ‘evil’ behaviors. Are these sins really all so terrible? Can lust, gluttony, and greed lead America towards success and happiness?
Throughout his book, The Science of Sin, Simon M. Laham claims these hallmark physiological characteristics of humankind are not mortal sins, and in fact not necessarily sins at all, but can instead lead towards success and happiness if utilized correctly. In order to further analyze the affect of these sins on our present day society, we must first look at their history. So how did the seven deadly sins earn their bad reputation? Over sixteen centuries ago, two monks, Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian, created a list of sins that were a hindrance to the ascetic communities. They organized this list in an attempt to keep the monks on the ‘right path’ towards their spiritual calling, and help maintain social order in the monasteries. Pope Gregory the Great later simplified this list in his A.D. 590 book, Morals on the Book of Job. This refined list essentially created the seven deadly sins that we know today. These sins were not normal transgressions with small penalties- these could condemn you to an eternity in hell.
As much as he champions for their potential, Laham admits that if used improperly, each of these sins does have it’s downside. He also says that in psychology, these aren’t necessarily considered sins, morally bad, or even wrong. Laham claims :
In the psychological sciences, however, the concepts of sin and morality have quite a different history. Over the years, philosophers and scientists have made attempts to naturalize morality, stripping any divine gloss from the concept. Morality is now considered a set of evolved mechanisms that serve useful evolutionary ends. As are the traditional “sins.” (p. 9)
These ‘sins,’ as we refer to them, are actually complex “psychological states,” that turn out to be largely functional in our modern times. Calling them sins merely stigmatizes them, breeds disdain, and is an overall simplistic label. Although many people in western society may no longer see the cardinal sins as ‘deadly,’ many still live strictly by these religious doctrines.

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Even among those who wouldn’t label the seven as sins at all, there is still a strong negative connotation associated with the words and their meaning. Pope Gregory listed the seven in order from least sinister, corporal sins to the deadlier, spiritual ones. First, let’s begin with lust.
What is lust? By definition, lust is the physiological antecedent to sex. It is the physical and intense desire for something, or someone. Lust can take many forms- lust for the beautiful stranger that just passed by, lust for a promotion at work, lust for the newest technology, lust for knowledge, even lust for power. There are a plethora of things that can be objects of lust, and everyone has their own list of turn-ons, their own list of desires. No matter what these objects of lust might be, the way we respond to these arousals is remarkably similar. Laham says that in social psychology, the word lust is actually used very rarely. Instead, they call it “the activation of the sexual behavior system” (p. 13). They deem it as such because of the deep and complex physiological, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive changes that begin to occur in individuals once they become aroused. Most of these changes are not obvious, especially to the individual, but are fascinatingly similar among the entire population.
This activation system was created for the main purpose of reproduction, but reproduction is not the only drive for people to have sex. Men and women may have many reasons for wanting to engage in sex, but the main reason the system was designed was to pass genes onto our offspring. In Laham’s book, he states there are exactly 237 reasons why men and women want to have sex, including celebrating a special occasion, to feel loved, wanting to get a promotion, wanting to connect with god. Although our reasons for engaging in sex may be the same, what we prefer and are attracted to vary greatly. In women, men are generally searching for youth, beauty, and a waist-to-hip-ratio of about 0.70. On the other hand, what women look for in men is usually money, status, education, and dominance. All of the physiological and behavioral changes that occur in our bodies are designed to increase our chances of having sex . When sexually aroused, subconsciously, we change our personality, behavior, and our looks- all to become more appealing to the opposite sex. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we know what the opposite sex desires, and we then exploit these traits to make ourselves more appealing (p.14-15).
Beyond the more obvious physical fulfillment, how does lust benefit us? It pulls our attention towards the present and immediate gratification. It helps us pay attention to stimuli that will ultimately fulfill our goal of having sex. It also places importance on anything that will help us gain any immediate reward. This occurs because the brain shifts it’s focus from general, global type processing, and moves on to a more detail-oriented, local type of processing. Global processing is a more holistic view, while local processing is often referred to as analytic thinking, or problem solving. Lust provokes this type of thinking because the individual must sort out what to do, and in what order, to attract their desired mate. This can be a benefit in many ways, but especially in problem solving requiring methodical and systematic techniques. Laham jokes that one should watch pornography, or view other sexually stimulating media before an exam to increase concentration, shift to localized processing, and to overall get a better grade.
It’s no secret that advertising agencies use sex to sell products; so the notion that sex sells wouldn’t seem too far-fetched. The basic theory behind this is called ‘evaluative conditioning.’ Laham explains this concept as: “the idea that when a positive stimulus is consistently paired with a neutral stimulus, the neutral stimulus comes to be judged more positively. The same logic holds for pairing negative and neutral stimuli: Neutral becomes negative” (p. 25). This concept is not without it’s flaws, however. It has been shown that although many consumers find sex to be a positive stimulus, sex in advertising, if not done properly, is often distracting. Many times the sexual stimulus overshadows the product being sold, leaving the consumer with little memory of the brand or product. Then again, if utilized correctly, sex can definitely help a product’s sales. There is a reason ‘sex sells’ is a gold standard in advertising. When used in conjunction with a promise to make the consumer feel unique, success rates are high (p. 24-27).
Lust is not always constructive- it has it’s perilous side too. Studies have shown that when sexually stimulated or aroused, individuals found sexual cues in non-sexual stimuli, and had a higher tendency to partake is risky behaviors. In a study cited in his book, Laham shares that young men, when sexually aroused, were more likely to engage in behaviors such as lying to get a woman to bed, drugging her for sex, and to not use protection during sex. In fact, even the simple presence of an attractive potential mate can be enough to cause the individual to make risky or stupid decisions. Being in the presence of an attractive member of the opposite sex is not all bad though. Another study cited by Laham shows that when skateboarders were asked to try each of their hardest tricks ten times, they landed more while in the presence of a potential mate than they did in the presence of a member of the same sex. This is because the men, in an effort to impress the potential mate, took risks they wouldn’t have normally taken, resulting in a higher success rate than the other group. All of these examples demonstrate that having a lustful state of mind can be functional under the right circumstances.
The next of the sins is gluttony. In Pope Gregory’s time, gluttony was a multi-dimensional sin. It was defined as placing too much importance on food, or taking to much pleasure from the process of consuming it. You could be condemned for eating too greedily, too early, too expensively, or too much- simply because this focused on bodily pleasures. Today, this sin is more one-dimensional. We often define gluttony as eating excessive, unnecessary amounts of food. In America, it is also often used synonymously with obesity. There is a strong link that connects these two concepts together in our society, and many characterize obesity as moral weakness, and as having gluttonous tendencies. Still, these two ideas should not be confused- obesity is a physiologic condition, while gluttony is a way of eating. When gluttony was first added to the cardinal sins, physical body weight wasn’t taken into account; it was purely the over indulgence and pleasure taken from the food that was the sin.
How we view food in our society is not the same as how it is presented or consumed. Laham presents an idea: “In America, the attitude is ascetic, geared towards restraint and nutrition, but the environment is not.” (p.61). This is evidenced by our ‘ever-growing’ population. The Center for Disease Control reports that in 2010, over 67% of the United States population was either overweight or obese. This seems to be a mounting trend in our country. Environment plays a huge factor in this. Laham says:
Gluttony looks a little different in the contemporary industrialized Western world. Because of the abundance of convenient calories in our environment, our evolved drive to rampantly consume has become maladaptive. The real problem is not the gluttony per se, but gluttony in the midst of caloric excesses… (p. 42).
Serving size is another environmental factor that plays a huge role in our nation’s gluttonous tendencies. Compared to France, America portion sizes were overall about 25% larger. Along with serving size, an added culprit in obesity is what psychologists call the “clean the plate” phenomenon. This is a somewhat illogical occurrence in which the individual does not stop eating once satiated, but instead once the plate is empty (p. 42). With all of these negative factors taken into consideration, how can gluttony at all be regarded as a positive idea?
In his book, Lahan shares a thought: “ The glutton’s antithesis is the ascetic…[and] the modern incarnation of the ascetic is the dieter” (p. 45). Dieters in our society tend to have alleged merit simply because they show self-restraint, but Lahan lets us in on his theory that dieters do not have all the advantages over those who partake in gluttonous tendencies. He claims that dieters spend so much time pre-occupied about what they can and cannot eat, that they actually deplete vital glucose stores that the brain uses to function. Glucose, a monosaccharide, is the body’s preferred form of fuel. It powers many processes in our body, including brain function. Lahan asserts that when any kind of effortful mental endeavor is undertaken, it drains the glucose stores, making them unavailable for other types of cognitive undertakings. He says that the self-control exerted by a dieter is a prime example of this. In this way, those who aren’t dieting or exerting self-control will actually fare better in many mental tasks than those who are. (p.46-52).
Eating has a huge social component for people today. Often times, eating is what connects us to people. From the evening family dinner, to brunch among friends, it is a type of bonding that keeps relationships together. The very word companion, when dissected, comes from “com,” which is Latin for together, and “panis,” which is Latin for bread. Interestingly enough, Lahan again compares American dining tendencies with those of the French. Beyond the fact that their portion sizes are smaller, they appear to truly value the food and the experience of it as a whole, basically the very definition of a glutton by Pope Gregory’s standards. Although they would be considered gluttons in medieval times, it is the Americans that are overweight. Lahan says about the French: “They value experience, not consequence, sociality, not isolation, sensible variety, rather than plainness and monotony” (p. 62). So, taken as a whole, maybe it is not necessarily gluttony that should be viewed as a sin, but our definition of it.

Works Cited

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Faststats. (2012). Obesity and overweight. Retrieved from website:
Laham, S. (2012). The science of sin: The psychology of the seven deadlies (and why they are so good for you). (1st ed.). New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Seven deadly sins. (2013). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from sins

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