Recent study explains why some abide by sociocultural norms while others resist them.
by Emily Birnbaum, Kenyon ’18
According to religious philosophers such as Paul Tillich and Keji Nishitani, we cannot will ourselves into religiosity. In other words, a person cannot experience religion simply by going to church or living in a religious household—a person can only become truly religious after opening up their consciousness to a higher power. While this supernatural view of religion is intriguing, psychologists Jochen E. Gebauer, Wiebke Bleidorn, Samuel D. Gosling, Peter J. Rentfrow, Michael E. Lamb, and Jeff Potter recently put out a study that offers a different explanation for one’s propensity towards religiosity: their personality.
There has long been discourse within the personality psychology community about the relationship between religiosity and personality. Questions about this relationship include, “Does one’s personality actually influence whether or not they are religious?” and “What kinds of personalities are more drawn towards religious life?” According to previous studies, psychologists have consistently found a correlation between people who score high in Agreeableness and Conscientiousness and high levels of religiosity. This makes sense when one considers that Agreeableness and Conscientiousness are often associated with social acceptance. Agreeable people are more easily accepted into social groups because their attitude is so friendly, which is important in a community that creates tight-knit social groups based on practicing religion. Conscientious people are also more responsive to social cues, making them a more effective member of those same groups.
The 2014 study, however, set out to further explain this phenomenon by using a sociocultural lens. They hypothesized that people who scored high in Agreeableness and Conscientiousness would report high levels of religiosity mostly when they were situated in religious cultures. Highly agreeable and conscientious people who lived in more secular societies, then, would report lower levels of religiosity. This hypothesis was based on the idea that agreeable and conscientious people would feel a greater need to embrace societal norms. This “go with the flow” attitude would stem from their natural need to get along with others and respond to social pressures.
The study also hypothesized that people who were highly open would resist the sociocultural norms of their society, meaning that open people in secular societies would be more religious while open people in religious societies would be more secular. This hypothesis was based on research that indicated openness was related to a need for individuality, ie. resistance to their society’s norms.
Using information synthesized from self-report data sets across 66 countries, 50 U.S. states, 15 German federal states and 121 British urban areas, the study concluded that this hypothesis was correct. The study found that the strongest relationship is between agreeableness and personal religiosity, while conscientiousness came in second and openness came in third.
Why was the influence of sociocultural religiosity smaller in the case of Openness? According to a study done by Saucier and Skrzypinska (2006), people high in Openness do not necessarily reject religion altogether but instead tend to endorse more individualized spiritual beliefs. By this reasoning, future studies may not test whether open people are religious or non-religious but instead, may ask if they adhere to the religion that is represented around them.
Another potential issue with this study is the idea of multideterminism. It may be impossible to determine one single cause of personal religiosity (Sedikides & Gebauer, 2014). For this reason, the results of this study do not indicate a perfectly linear relationship between Big 5 traits and religiosity. It simply investigates one of the many factors that create religious people.
Finally, it should be noted that the causality of the relationships found in the study are unclear. Do agreeable people tend towards religiosity because religious groups are a place in which they can spend a lot of time with groups of people, thus expressing their agreeableness to its full extent? Or is it possible that religiosity facilitates and even strengthens agreeableness, because religious practice encourages people to assimilate more closely into their communities? The same questions apply to conscientiousness. Do conscientious people want to be religious because they feel the need to respond to social pressures or does religiosity encourage people to become more conscientious through its emphasis on self-control and rule-following? While it is very difficult to answer these questions, the study is decidedly unconcerned. Its results indicate that agreeable and conscientious people are drawn towards religion when it is a cultural norm. Whether or not there are other mitigating factors will be an interesting addition to future studies.
Overall, this study indicates something that is very important to our understanding of the relationship between personality and culture. All people born into a certain culture do not necessarily assimilate into said culture. According to this study, the reason for this can be related back to the strength of our Big 5 traits. This study will open the door to a lot of important sociocultural research to come.
Gebauer, E.J., Bleidorn, W., Gosling, S.D., Rentfrow, P., Lamb, M., & Potter, J. (2014). Cross-cultural variations in Big Five relationships with religiosity: A sociocultural motives perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107, 1064 –1091.
Saucier, G., & Skrzypinska, K. (2006). Spiritual but not religious? Evidence for two independent dispositions. Journal of Personality, 74, 1257–1292. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2006.00409.x
Sedikides, C., & Gebauer, J. E. (2010). Religiosity as self-enhancement: A meta-analysis of the relation between socially desirable responding and religiosity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, 17–36. doi: 10.1177/1088868309351002