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Seven deadly sins: A new look at society through an old lens


A new ESRC report, published to launch Social Science Week 2005, uses the seven deadly sins – pride, anger, lust, avarice, gluttony, envy and sloth – as a way of looking at some pressing issues of modern life: religious conflict, rage in kids and adults, sexual behaviour, corporate greed, binge drinking, rising personal debt and political apathy.

Exploring these issues afresh – and often questioning conventional wisdom – demands a look at the evidence, drawing on the wealth of information now available on people’s health, incomes, education, employment, families, relationships and social attitudes.

This report brings together studies by a group of leading social science researchers using large-scale data resources – like the three big birth cohort studies of 1958, 1970 and 2000/1, the British Household Panel Survey, the General Household Survey, the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, and the British Election Study – to provide invaluable insights into the patterns of our lives in the early twenty-first century.

PRIDE – Northern Ireland: in-group pride and out-group prejudice

Professors Ed Cairns and Miles Hewstone explore attitudes of ‘pride and prejudice’ among the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. They find that pride in one’s ‘in-group’ can be thought of as benign, acceptable and indeed positive in many ways. It is not inevitably linked to sectarian views. Indeed, warmth towards the in-group tends to be positively correlated with warmth towards the out-group. And bias can actually disappear when the level of sectarian conflict is relatively low – a true ‘peace dividend’. Thus, a peaceful future does not have to be built by attempting to cleave individuals from their valued community identities.

ANGER – Anger, irritability and hostility in children and adults

Dr Eirini Flouri and Professor Heather Joshi document our experience of anger drawing on the 1970 and 1958 birth cohort studies, people who are now in their thirties and forties. Among their findings are the facts that children from lower social classes are more likely to have been reported as frequently irritable or having tantrums; and that angry children do not necessarily become angry or unhappy adults. For adults, women are more likely than men to report being persistently angry; and 30-somethings with no partner are more likely to report angry feelings than their contemporaries with partners.

LUST – Changing sexual behaviour in the UK

Professor Kaye Wellings analyses evidence from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles to observe trends in sexual activity. This reveals that changes in sexual behaviour have been considerably more marked among women than men. For example, the proportion of women with one partner for life has fallen and the proportion reporting concurrent relationships has increased. At the same time, women are twice as likely as men to regret their first experience of intercourse and three times as likely to report being the less willing partner. And the majority of people of both sexes – four out of five – strongly disapprove of sexual infidelity.

AVARICE – Executive pay in the United States

Do the high levels of pay of US chief executive officers (CEOs) reflect the ‘greed is good’ attitude of avarice? Professor Martin Conyon suggests that there other equally plausible explanations that explain pay outcomes, such as the need to recruit, retain and motivate talented CEOs to manage increasingly complex organisations in the competitive global economy. The evidence suggests that CEO compensation – both current pay and aggregate shares and options owned – do provide the right incentives to focus on maximising corporate wealth. At the same time, shareholders and boards must be vigilant in the design of compensation contracts.

GLUTTONY – ‘Binge drinking’ and the binge economy

An extraordinary amount of media attention focuses on alcohol consumption and its impact on public order and health. But as Professor Dick Hobbs shows, while ‘binge drinking’ youths dominate the headlines, it is older drinkers in their middle years that are most likely to succumb to alcohol-related death. He argues that it is the logic of the market and not the logic derived from careful data analysis that informs government policy on alcohol. As a society, we embrace the ‘night-time economy’ – and the jobs, urban regeneration and taxation that it generates – while seeking to punish the routine transgressions of its primary consumers.

ENVY – Debt: envy, penury or necessity?

What part does envy play in the apparently spiralling stock of personal debt in the UK, which last year passed the £1 trillion mark? Looking at data from the British Household Panel Survey, Stephen McKay finds that the average man has borrowed close to £5,000 while the average women owes around £3,000. What’s more, people who are envious of what others have, and dissatisfied with their own incomes, do tend to have higher levels of credit and greater difficulties making repayments. But the size of this effect is small compared with the effects of age, income and changes in circumstances.

SLOTH – Turnout: a crisis in UK politics?

The last two general elections had the second and third worst turnouts since 1900. Professor Charlie Jeffery uses the British Election Study and other surveys of political participation to understand growing voter apathy. He argues that the real problem lies not in the voters’ sloth but in the failure of politicians to communicate clear policy platforms and to reach out to habitual non-voters. That failure seems deeply embedded at the UK level but is also present in the devolved nations despite extravagant claims made in the 1990s about a new politics of better participation for ordinary citizens.

Becky Gammon | alfa
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