The Theology of Everyday Life: Sinning in Your Heart, Part 4, "The ACU Study"

Okay, finally, I'm ready to talk about the ACU research. (The picture on the left is our beloved Chambers Hall, home of the Psychology Department at ACU.)

This summer some students and I puzzled over the Cohen and Rozin (2001) study concerning the Morality of Mentality (see "Part 1" of this series). Specifically, we wondered how the "person on the street" or, rather, the "Christian in the pew" evaluated mental events. That is, when do most people make the judgment that a thought has become more than just a temptation, that the thought is now a sin? How does the typical person make these kinds of judgments? What factors into their deliberations?

For example, let's say, as in the Cohen and Rozin (2001) study, a married man works with a sexually attractive co-worker. Due to her attractiveness he finds, fairly regularly, sexual thoughts drifting through his mind. Is this man committing infidelity in his heart? Perhaps, but you probably want some more details. So did we. So, the students and I thought about this kind of situation and came up with the following.

First, maybe a thought becomes a sin, in the minds of Christians, if the thought starts moving toward "obsession." That is, if the man thought about having sex with this co-worker A LOT, we might start calling his situation "lust."

Second, maybe it is not the amount of thought that matters, but how the man RESPONDS TO THE THOUGHT, MENTALLY SPEAKING. That is, when the sexual thought emerges, does the man try to shoo the thought away? Or, does he entertain the thought, allowing it to sit in his mind for a time?

Clearly, these two things are correlated--degree of contemplation and resistance to the thought--but they are distinct features. That is, although resisting "tempting" thoughts should reduce their frequency, there are many cases where there is both high thought frequency AND resistance. The struggling addict comes to mind.

So, given these two factors, the students and I borrowed the experimental protocol of Cohen and Rozin (2001) and found the following (Bartlett, L., Graves, L., Pauli, G., & Short, K. 2006. The Morality of Mentality: Effects of contemplation and resistance. Paper presented at the 52nd Annual Southwestern Psychology Association Conference, Austin, TX.): Assessments of sinfulness were based upon degree of resistance. No effect was found for degree of contemplation.

What that seems to suggest is that you can "sin in your heart" but that this "sin" is NOT A SIN OF COMISSION as is commonly thought. Rather, IT IS A SIN OF OMISSION. That is, a lustful or hateful thought can erupt in your mind at any time. Further, it can even be a frequent thought. But that, according to our research, doesn't make you a bad person. What is critical, mentally speaking, IS WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

If what happens next is a cognitive attempt to shut down the thought, then no sin has occurred.

If, however, the thought is entertained, courted, and elaborated the mental events are starting to look like "lust," "envy," "hate" and all those other “sins of the heart.”

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One thought on “The Theology of Everyday Life: Sinning in Your Heart, Part 4, "The ACU Study"”

  1. Something I heard once--but don't remember where: You can't keep birds from flying over and pooping on you. But you CAN prevent them from building a nest in your hair. Like you, I think that the key is not the frequency of the thoughts, but what we do with them.

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