BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Sin: The Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (and Why They Are So Good For You) by Simon M. Laham

Review by Nick Bascom

Contrary to popular belief, experiencing anger may make a person more optimistic and more likely to change long-held opinions. Swelling with pride can increase agreeability, while growing lusty could make a person more attentive, more creative and even more charitable, suggests Laham in this promising debut.

With a provocative wit (in the first chapter he encourages readers to grab a bra so that they can experience a study firsthand), Laham, an experimental psychologist, reveals how indulging in the seven deadly sins can be advantageous. After briefly explaining the history of the deadlies — Pope Gregory the Great, elaborating on the work of monks, popularized them in the sixth century — Laham explores recent research into the “fascinating complexity” of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy and pride and their effects on the human psyche.

In his chapter on envy, Laham describes an experiment in which participants, some of whom read a brief description of an extremely successful peer, were asked to imagine novel uses for a brick. “The envious, upwardly comparing participants were more creative, thinking of more things to do with a brick than the controls,” he writes. Laham’s favorite use for the brick: as a mock coffin at a Barbie funeral.

As he discusses psychological studies, Laham provides expert analysis without bombarding readers with technical terms. It’s a fun, rapid read, but also a probing look at an engrossing field of scientific inquiry.

Three Rivers Press, 2012, 224 p., $14