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Permission to Sin: Why The 7 Deadlies Aren't So Terrible After All

Scientists have found that the seven deadly sins aren't all bad. Consider this your official permission to give in to temptation.

1. SLOTH

Quit beating yourself up about your unused gym membership: It’s only 10 percent your fault! Turns out, laziness is largely genetic. In 2004, Timothy Lightfoot, currently a kinesiologist at Texas A&M University, began publishing studies about what separates athletes from couch potatoes. He bred two types of mice—energetic and lazy—and then measured how far they ran on the exercise wheel. Active mice clocked five to eight miles per day—the equivalent of a human running two marathons in a row. By contrast, the sedentary mice ambled about 0.3 miles per day, with the laziest of the bunch stuffing wood shavings around the wheel to turn it into a bed. When Lightfoot examined the rodents’ DNA, he found that heredity accounted for about 50 percent of the differences in their activity levels. Since then, studies on humans suggest that up to 90 percent of our energy levels are controlled by genetics.

But there’s a reason laziness hasn’t been weeded out of the gene pool. Back when our cave-dwelling ancestors weren’t scrounging for food or running from saber-toothed tigers, they lounged to conserve calories. Even in civilized society, where inventions from banana peelers to Segways encourage sloth, laziness can give us an edge. One 2011 study by University College London found that employees who work more than 11 hours a day have a 67 percent higher risk of heart disease than slackers. Other studies have linked long work hours to higher levels of stress, fatigue, depression, musculoskeletal disorders, chronic infections, diabetes, and death. Yikes! Sounds like you’re safer staying on the couch.

2. LUST

Of all the cardinal sins, lust has perhaps the most obvious good points (procreation!) and as long as you avoid its potentially nasty side effects (chlamydia!) it can be measurably good for your health.

In a Duke University study that followed 252 North Carolina residents over 25 years, medical sociology professor Erdman Palmore found that men who had sex more than once a week lived two years longer on average than men who had it less often. For women, quality trumped quantity: Those who said they enjoyed sex lived seven to eight years longer than women who weren’t so into it. Sex keeps people alive and kicking, Palmore says, because it comes with both physical and psychological benefits. “It gets your heart pumping, plus it makes you feel good about life,” he says.

If a longer life span isn’t convincing enough, here’s another perk: improved public speaking skills. In a 2006 study, Stuart Brody at the University of Paisley in Scotland forced volunteers to give a speech to a panel of bored judges. After the orators slinked offstage, Brody took their blood pressure, which was sky-high for most—except for the people who, in diaries of their activities, said they’d had intercourse at some point in the past two weeks. Sex, it seems, doesn’t just keep us calm; it’s a pretty good antidote for stage fright.

3. ENVY

At the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan, scientists slid 19 volunteers into an MRI machine, then summoned the green-eyed monster by presenting them with a description of someone who had it all—great job, great relationship, great life. As participants read about the high achiever, an area of their brains called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) ignited. This spot also flares in the presence of physical pain, proving that envy really does hurt. However, ACC activation was only induced when the subject and object were similar in sex, age, class, or background. “[If] the possession of the target person is superior and the comparison domain is self-relevant, we feel intense envy,” reported Hidehiko Takahashi in a 2009 study.

But feeling intense jealously actually spurs the envious to improve their performance. “Individuals experiencing envy in response to another’s advantage are being appropriately alerted to the advantage and motivated to commence corrective action,” note psychologists Sarah Hill and David Buss in the book Envy: Theory and Research. “Over the course of evolutionary time, individuals who did not feel subjective discomfort in these situations would likely have been out-competed by their more envious counterparts.”

Some scientists have even proposed that envy may help explain why humans are less prone to hierarchy than many species and are constantly rebelling against kings and dictators. Nader Habibi, an economics professor at Brandeis University, argues that Tunisia’s successful 2011 rebellion against president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali sparked a wave of “democracy envy” throughout the Middle East, leading to riots that toppled other despots, starting with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. “What happened in Tunisia filled Egyptians with envy,” Habibi says. “For the average Egyptian, the emotional cost of living under Mubarak’s authoritarian rule suddenly rose skyhigh. ‘Are we less courageous than the Tunisians?’ they asked one another. As this question echoed in their ears, envy turned to outrage, compelling them into the streets. The rest, of course, is history.”

4. GREED

Between Bernie Madoff and, well, everyone involved in the financial crisis of 2008, greed has gotten a bad rap. One of the most confounding questions: Why do wealthy bankers and CEOs still want more? In 2000, financial reporter Jason Zweig set out to answer this question by having his brain scanned via MRI when he played gambling games. During one experiment, scans revealed that his brain lit up like a slot machine while he anticipated winning five bucks. Once he’d earned the money, however, his neural circuits cooled off. “Making money feels good, all right; it just doesn’t feel as good as expecting to make money,” Zweig explains. “In a cruel irony that has enormous implications for financial behavior, your investing brain comes equipped with a biological mechanism that is more aroused when you anticipate a profit than when you actually get one.”

In an evolutionary sense, of course, greed is essential to survival. When resources are scarce, people who hog more than their fair share will last longer than those who don’t. And it goes beyond individuals. Economists in Switzerland have found that a moderate level of greed is beneficial for society as a whole. In 2010, Dirk Helbing, a professor of sociology, modeling, and simulation at ETH Zurich, announced that he’d designed a computer model to test the effects of greed on social cohesion. Not surprisingly, a high greed society led to a “freeloader effect” where everyone was out for themselves and anarchy reigned. But the low greed society, long thought of as the utopian ideal, was also bad for social cohesion: Individuals had such a low threshold for contentment that they didn’t bother pitching in to the common good. In the moderate greed model, Helbing writes, “cooperation and agglomeration emerged, reaching a stationary state where clearly more than one half of the population is cooperative and individuals tend to agglomerate and form cooperative clusters.” In other words, a little greed is good for society.

5. GLUTTONY

Need a good excuse to cram handfuls of pork rinds into your maw? Science has your back. While there are plenty of downsides to weight gain (studies show heavier people don’t get hired or promoted as much), an expanding waistline can tip certain scales in your favor.

In 2005, Leif Nelson, a professor at New York University, published a paper detailing how he’d parked himself in front of the college cafeteria and asked entering and exiting students to write down their ideal weight preference in a mate. Surprisingly, men changed their answers based on two factors. Those who hadn’t eaten yet wrote that they preferred their girlfriends to weigh an average of 125.5 pounds—2.7 pounds heavier than men who’d already had their fill of cafeteria fare. And those with less money in their wallets preferred women to weigh 127.2 pounds—2.3 pounds heavier than men who had plenty of cash. Nelson’s theory is that our less prosperous evolutionary pasts are to blame. Back in our cavedwelling days, a few extra pounds on a woman didn’t spell the difference between a size six and an eight; they determined whether she could stave off starvation a little longer, giving a man ample time to bring home the mammoth bacon. On the other hand, Nelson found that women’s tastes in a man’s weight remained constant regardless of whether they’d eaten or how much money they had.

For men, a few extra pounds come with even more surprising benefits. In a 2010 study by the University of Missouri, volunteers were shown pictures of politicians, some of which had been doctored to make the politicos appear obese. When asked to rate how well these candidates would perform on the job, the portly men were deemed more trustworthy than the thin ones.

6. WRATH

As anyone who's driven in rush hour traffic can attest, wrath is a sin that’s hard to avoid. And while society tends to see angry people as irrational, those with tempers might be seeing things more clearly than their even-keeled friends. In 2007, UC Santa Barbara scientist Wesley Moons had volunteers write about their hopes and dreams, then trashed some of the essays right in front of the writers to push their buttons. After that, Moons presented written proposals on a variety of topics, like whether high schoolers should have to take comprehensive exams in order to graduate. In these proposals, some of the arguments were strong (“comprehensive exams improve students’ job prospects”) while others were noticeably weaker (“someone’s cousin took that exam so others should too”).

When Moons asked his study subjects to pick which case was most compelling, the irate volunteers didn’t waver: They chose the stronger argument. Meanwhile, the mellower control group seemed equally lulled by both strong and weak arguments. Anger, Moons concluded, appears to sharpen our analytical skills—most likely because it forces us to ignore irrelevant details. “Anger increases our attention and focus, which helps us process information more thoroughly,” says Moons. “We’ve moved from a time when anger is this terrible thing to a more nuanced view that it can be beneficial.”

7. PRIDE

Pride is traditionally considered the root of all sins—it’s what caused Satan to think he could do a better job than God, which got him kicked out of heaven. But as it turns out, our bodies are programmed for pride. In 2005, Julian Keenan of Montclair State University in New Jersey pinpointed the area of the brain responsible: the medial prefrontal cortex. In his experiments, Keenan managed to “turn off ” pride by asking volunteers to don a cap of electromagnetic coils that disrupted the firing of neurons via a process called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. Keene then gave them an “IQ test” where he ran a bunch of obscure words by his study subjects, asking if they knew what these words meant. What he didn’t mention was that it was a trick quiz: Half the words were made up. “An IQ test does not measure pride. However, pretending to know items on an IQ test that aren’t real is a measure of pride,” Keenan says. Sure enough, pride prompted the cap-less control group to “know” many of the fabricated words, while those subject to TMS admitted ignorance.

Pride is clearly natural, but it also may be necessary. Keenan has found that people with no pride tend to be clinically depressed. Originally, “I thought people with depression saw themselves as unrealistically bad,” he says. “It turns out that people without depression see themselves as unrealistically good.” Another upside of pride is that it fuels further accomplishments. In a 2008 study, Lisa Williams and David DeSteno of Northeastern University gave subjects a task and told some of them that they’d aced it even if they hadn’t. They then grouped the participants into teams to solve puzzles. Participants who’d been primed to feel pride tended to take charge and handle the puzzle pieces more than those who hadn’t gotten feedback on the earlier task. The results convinced Keenan that pride is an essential evil: “Pride allows us to go out and take risks and do stupid things, and some of those stupid things pay off pretty well.”

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Get a free issue here!

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 


PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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