Religion and personality

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Viewing religiosity through the lenses of differing personality characteristics provides a relatively empirical way to study a difficult concept. Over time, the act of being religious has been a consistent behavior across almost every culture, and thus provides evidence that our personality can help explain the seeming predisposition that religious people have.

With the ability to use modern, empirically tested personality measures, researchers can link results with religiosity. In linking personality measures with religion, it is possible to quantitatively study results, which can provide insight into how, and why religion is such an important element of being human.[1] However, more research is needed to definitively say that there is a correlation between personality characteristics and religion.[2]

Five-factor model of personality[edit]

The five-factor model of personality is currently accepted as a comprehensive model of personality.[3] The five-factor model (FFM) identifies five broad traits underlying the many narrower traits that can be used to describe personality. The identified traits are: 1) extraversion, the quantity and intensity of one's interpersonal interactions 2) neuroticism, the tendency to experience negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, and hostility 3) conscientiousness, the persistence, organization, and motivation exhibited in goal-directed behaviors 4) agreeableness, the quality of one's interpersonal interactions along a continuum from compassion to antagonism 5) openness, the proactive seeking and appreciation of new experiences. An idea behind the big five personality characteristics that makes them very compatible to religious study is that each trait is orthogonal or completely independent from one another.[4] In having the ability to separate each essential trait from the other, it is possible to study each personality characteristic and how it relates to religiosity.

The idea of studying the psychology of religion through a personality lens is not a new idea, however. There has been research to both support and refute the ability of personality traits to explain religious or spiritual involvement. Research using Eysenck's model has found that religiosity in general is associated with low psychoticism,[5] a factor associated inversely with agreeableness and conscientiousness.[6] A review of studies examined the relations between the FFM and measures of religiosity, spiritual maturity, religious fundamentalism, and extrinsic religion. General religiosity was mainly related to Agreeableness and Conscientiousness of the big five traits.[6] Additionally, there was a weak positive association with extraversion, and a very small but significant relationship with low openness to experience. This same study also found that the two different concepts of religiosity and spirituality both involve an overall compassionate attitude towards others and positively correlates with agreeableness. Open, mature religiosity and spirituality were associated with high openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, and with low neuroticism. Religious fundamentalism was associated with higher agreeableness, and lower neuroticism and lower openness to experience. Extrinsic religiosity was associated with higher neuroticism but unrelated to the other personality factors. All of these relationships between personality and religion were small. This finding does not necessarily support the concept of personality for being the specific reason for religiosity, however this correlation with the FFM can lead to more in depth research on the topic.

Strengths and weaknesses[edit]

As previously stated, one of the major strengths for using the FFM to study religiosity in people is the how empirically tested, and accurate the measure actually is in accordance to personality.[7] Another strength is that the big five is an excellent starting point for beginning to look at links between personality and religiosity because it is simply laid out. While this is a huge strength, some research argues that its downfall lies in that it is solely a personality indicator, and is not compatible with religious or spiritual matters. For example, in another study that investigated the correlation between religiosity and the FFM, a conclusion was drawn that religiosity and/or spirituality should be made into a sixth personality factor in order to truly make research using this model accurate.[8] As more advances in research using the FFM to study religiosity and spirituality come, there will be a clearer cut answer as to whether there is a significant place for the FFM in studying religious behavior.

Attachment theory[edit]

Attachment Theory is another example of a personality indicator with the ability to help researchers understand religiosity and spirituality. The basic premise of attachment theory is that infants form relationships with their caregivers, and depending on the type of attachment, personality and future relationships will be influenced accordingly.[9] The idea behind how the theory relates to the psychology of religion is that these future relationships can be with the particular god, or higher power.

In attachment theory, there have been three attachment styles identified: 1)secure style- confidence in the availability of attachment figures during times of need 2)avoidant style- insecurity and lack of trust in the ability of others to care for one's needs 3) anxious-ambivalent style- view of others as being reluctant to get close to oneself.[10] The research varies in explaining which type of attachment style yields the individual's particular relationship with God. For example, in one study, a secure relationship with one's parents will translate into a secure attachment to God, and vice versa.[11] However, other research has showed that there is a compensatory effect, or the need of people to make up for something that is lacking. For instance, someone with an insecure attachment style with their parents may in turn, have a very secure, and confident relationship with God.[12]

Strengths and weaknesses[edit]

The idea of being able to link people's religiousness (or lack thereof) with how their attachment with their caregivers was, seems to be a promising field of study. The obstacle that makes this seemingly simple idea very complicated is that the current data is so skewed. There are many studies that found there is a direct correspondence from attachment style with caregivers to God, and there are studies who have found more compensatory results. The inability of researchers to find a general consensus could be a hindrance towards future exploration in this field.

Object relations theory[edit]

Object relations theory's roots lie in children relating or associating different emotions with different people (objects). The children associate these emotions to the objects based on how they currently view the world around them.[13] For example, kids will associate the emotion of something good with mother, and bad with something like criminals. In relating this with religious ideals, it seems natural that the same concept should apply. One's relationship with God should, in theory, be traced back to association.

In this theory, it is hypothesized that the person ends up creating an idea of God according to what the individual needs, and how he or she perceives the world. This view of personality and religion does not focus on how each person differs trait wise, but it centers on the type of relationship the individual has with God.[14]

Strengths and weaknesses[edit]

An important notion to keep in mind with Object Relations theory is that it is highly theoretical. This is a weakness in the sense that all data is based on a concept that cannot be objectively verified, and thus creates a confound.[15] As with all inquiries about the psychological nature of religion, it is difficult to find extremely valid and reliable measures because of the introspective nature of the subject. That being said, there is something that we can learn from this field of study. By analyzing how this theory of personality development correlates with one's attachment to a religious deity, we can hopefully begin to understand how important association, and perception is to religious ideals.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Saroglou, Vassilis (2014). Religion, Personality, and Social Behavior. New York: Psychology Press. 
  2. ^ Park, edited by Raymond F. Paloutzian, Crystal L. (2005). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 253–2–4. ISBN 1-57230-922-9. 
  3. ^ Digman, J.M. (1990). "Personality structure: Emergence of the five-factor model". Annual Review of Psychology. 41: 417–440. doi:10.1146/ 
  4. ^ Funder, David C. (2010). The personality puzzle (5th ed.). New York: W.W. Norton. pp. 243–244. ISBN 9780393933482. 
  5. ^ Emmons, Robert A.; Paloutzian, Raymond F. (2003). "The Psychology of Religion". Annual Review of Psychology. 54: 377–402. PMID 12171998. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.54.101601.145024. 
  6. ^ a b Saroglou, Vassilis (2002). "Religion and the five-factors of personality: A meta-analytic review.". Personality and Individual Diffenences: 15–25. 
  7. ^ Costa, P; McCrae (1992). The NEO PI-R Professional Manuel.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  8. ^ Piedmont, R. "Strategies for using the five factor model of personality in religious research". Journal of Psychology and Theology. 27: 338–350. 
  9. ^ Bowlby, J (1973). Attachment and loss: Separation, anxiety and anger. New York: Basic Books. 
  10. ^ Park, edited by Raymond F. Paloutzian, Crystal L. (2005). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality. New York: Guilford Press. p. 256. ISBN 1-57230-922-9. 
  11. ^ Kirkpatrick, L (1998). "God as a substitute attachment figure: a longitudinal study of adult attachment style and religious change in college students.". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 24: 961–973. doi:10.1177/0146167298249004. 
  12. ^ Park, edited by Raymond F. Paloutzian, Crystal L. (2005). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality. New York: Guilford Press. pp. 256–257. ISBN 1572309229. 
  13. ^ Kernberg, O. "Structural derivatives of object relationships". International Journal of Psycho-Analysis: 236–253. 
  14. ^ Rizzuto, A (1979). The birth of the living god. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  15. ^ Lilienfeld, S; Wood, J; Garb, H (2000). "The scientific status of projective tests". Psychological Science in the Public Interest. doi:10.1111/1529-1006.002.