Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Procrastination & The Science of Sin

Why we consider sloth a deadly sin.

Belphegor
I did an interview recently for an upcoming documentary entitled "The Science of Sin." Not surprisingly, I talked about sloth. Why it's considered sinful is worth some reflection.

The categories of sin in the Catholic Church have a long and interesting history. It's beyond the scope of this post and my scholarship to do justice to this story. Suffice it to say that the notion of sin has changed in its meaning over the centuries.

One of the classic Christian discussions of the topic of the seven deadly sins is in the Summa Theologica by the 13th-century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas. These sins were also a popular theme in the morality plays and art of the European Middle Ages.

In short, from the cultural heritage of the Christian tradition, we are well acquainted with the usual list of the seven deadly sins: (1) vainglory, or pride, (2) covetousness, (3) lust, (4) envy, (5) gluttony  (usually including drunkenness), (6) anger, and (7) sloth. Each of these has also been associated with an archdemon. In the case of sloth, this is Belphegor, pictured in this post (although these associated demons also had a long and changing history). There's nothing quite like putting a face to a name, is there?

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Among the questions raised for me in terms of sloth and sin specifically were:

1) Is sloth simply a concern of the Christian tradition? and

2) Why is sloth considered a sin?

The answer to the first question is fairly straightforward. No. Each of the major religions seems to have something akin to sloth, with similarly negative connotations.

The answer to the second question is very interesting involving complex discussions of different types of sin. I won't dive into these deep waters. Instead, I will take an admittedly light-fingered approach to a complex history to make a fairly simple point.

Whether it be Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Judaic or Muslim  traditions, sloth is, at the very least, a hindrance or obstacle in life. In addition, blame is cast on the slothful individual. I'll come back to this important issue of blame.

Why a sin?
Borrowing from ancient Greek thought, sloth is a sin because it contributes to the individual's failure to achieve his or her true self-expression. In particular, sloth is a sin in this regard because time is of the essence. We are temporally-limited creatures. We live. We die. In the time in between, we are called to be our "true selves." This may be considered to be in the likeness of "God," whatever that may mean to you. However, we need not go this far theologically to see why sloth is a sin. Even an athesist might see how the temporal limit on human life leads to the notion that "time is holy."

To sum it up, time is holy because we have so little of it. Life is short. Time is precious. To waste it, to squander it through sloth - laziness, procrastination, task avoidance, amotivation, desultory or dilatory behavior - is a sin against life itself. This is a general commonality of the "sin" of sloth.

Sin. It's a heavy word for the 21st century. We prefer scientific explanations, and that's where this documentary is meant to take the viewer. Although I haven't seen the compiled interviews and footage yet, I'm sure we'll venture into the brain via modern studies with fMRI. We'll discuss the prefrontal cortex and executive function. In short, we'll look to understand why we humans are prone to these moral shortcomings we label as sin.

With procrastination, the scientific answer consistently points to self-regulation failure. We fail to regulate ourselves to engage in our intended actions even though this failure to act has the potential of being self-defeating. Acting now is in our best interest, we know this, nothing is stopping us from acting, but we still somewhat irrationally voluntarily delay our actions. My blog posts have addressed  this in so many different ways, including the notion of our limited willpower.

It's not a new story, even with the "new" neuroscientific perspective. William James addressed this in his early psychological writings on the "obstructed will" as he denounced the "schemers and deadbeats" of the world. There was no mistaking the moral failing of the obstructed will. Modern psychology continues to investigate the failure of will. We continue to acknowledge that sloth is not the best route to take. Indeed, we call it self-regulation "failure."

However, the scientific view is not my perspective today. It's this notion of sin, of not fulfilling our potential, of wasting that which is truly "holy" in our lives, our lives themselves. 

As long-time readers of this Don't Delay blog know, I have an existential perspective of our self-regulation failure that does speak to the moral failing of procrastination. I begin with the assumption of human agency, not a simplistic determinism that would deny this. For those so engaged philosophically, you might call mine a "compatibilist" position on human freedom and free will. Although I agree that we need to understand what we may call the "neural signature" of procrastination, this explanation provides no excuse for failing to act. These lower-level, neural explanations provide us with an understanding of the correlates of our action, not necessarily an ultimate cause in and of itself.

I think what we hope with this new science of sin, is that we can side-step the sin part altogether by explaining the neural causes of our behaviors. We hope we can understand the mechanism so that we can fix it, no effort required. These are vain hopes, I believe. We can't side-step human agency.

Praise and Blame
Sin necessarily begins with the assumption of agency, of free will. We are free to choose, and it is on the basis of this choice that we are open to praise or blame. This is the key common feature of the nature of sloth across belief systems as well. Sloth begets blame, the ultimate blame in fact, as sin.

And, we're back to human nature. We work for praise and to avoid blame. We do our best to foster self-regulatory skills in our children and ourselves to make the right choice, most of the time. We struggle with weakness of will. We seek forgiveness in our own way, and we try again.

What do we know about the science of sin? In terms of procrastination, we continue to refine our understanding of self-regulatory processes, neural and behavioral, that we might bolster to more effectively be the people we strive to be. A good and common example are the positive effects of mindfulness meditation on self-regulatory strength. Of course, we have to choose to develop this attentional skill, and that takes us back to our active agency in the world. If our route to self-regulatory salvation is mindfulness meditation, then our slothful delay of this practice is its own perverse form of second-order procrastination (a whole new category of sloth perhaps?).

I hope you can see the difference here between some tongue-in-cheek comments and the more important issues of agency, self-regulatory failure and sin. Sloth is a sin in the sense that we feel the weight of the moral blame for not living up to our commitment to ourselves to act as we intend. It falls into the category of sin, as opposed to some less important moral failing, because it contributes to a failure to live life fully. Ouch. I thought it was only a problem of spending too much time on the couch on Saturday afternoons or too many "all-nighters" when reports are due.

Procrastination and the science of sin . . . the sin intrigues us, the science fascinates, but we have to be careful not to simply amuse ourselves to death with information posing as wisdom. Just as knowing how the gut digests food will not necessarily help us curb our over-eating, insight about how self-regulatory processes in the brain control behaviors may not bring us any closer to acting in a timely manner in our goal pursuit. This is not the level of analysis required. Instead, we need to heed another ancient adage, one as old as sin itself; know thyself.

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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