Religion, Spirituality, and Exaggerating The Traits We Desire

by Evie Kennedy, Kenyon ’17

Altruism, tender-mindedness, trust, modesty, a pro-social attitude. All of these characteristics are associated with Agreeableness, one of the essential traits that psychologists study as part of the “Big 5” model of personality (John, Naumann, & Soto, 2008). All of these characteristics, however, are also part of the basic tenants of many religious doctrines. Religious teachings of various denominations focus on treating others with kindness, even putting others before oneself in some cases. A recent study by Ludeke and Carey (2015) found not only that religious people are generally more agreeable, but also that they tend to exaggerate their levels of Agreeableness because the trait is so important to their personal religious values, and because of societal expectations of being religious. Furthermore, they found that people who are more spiritual, rather than conventionally religious, tended to exaggerate their levels of Openness, a trait that includes imagination, creativity, intellect, and curiosity (John, Naumann, & Soto, 2008).

Much of psychological research is based on self-report questionnaires, in which participants evaluate their own characteristics. In this study, the researchers used the Big Five Inventory, a common self-report test that measures levels of the personality traits Agreeableness and Openness, as well as Extraversion, Conscientiousness, and Neuroticism. These questions are asked in a straightforward manner, without deception; for example, an item measuring agreeableness may be “Is kind and considerate to almost everyone.” While it may seem that we are the best experts on ourselves, many studies have found that this is not the case. We are often biased when evaluating ourselves, especially when rating ourselves on a trait that we value highly or a trait that our society values highly (Vazire & Carlson, 2011).

To determine if this was the case with religious and spiritual individuals, Ludeke and Carey (2015) measured each participant’s levels of socially desirable responding, or the extent to which they claim high levels of a trait just because it is societally valued. Furthermore, they measured the extent to which each individual values each trait personally, or how personally desirable the trait is. They expected these phenomena to explain any differences found between a participant’s self-report of their personality and their “true” personality.

So, how did the researchers define “true” personality in this study? As well as administering the Big Five Inventory to the participants, they also administered it to a peer who knew the participant very well, to rate the peer’s perception of the participant’s personality. The researchers admit that this is not a perfect representation of true personality—first, a close peer may be motivated to represent their friend more positively, and second, it is possible that these peers held the same or similar values regarding religiosity and spirituality as the participants, providing a similar bias. Nonetheless, peer reports are generally considered a good measure from which to determine biases in self-report data. Following the Big Five Inventory, participants rated how desirable each trait was to them personally, followed by a measure of socially desirable responding. Next, the participants completed the Expressions of Spirituality Inventory, which was meant to determine levels of spirituality and conventional religiousness. The spirituality scale mostly consisted of items relating to mystical or transcendental experiences.

As the researchers expected, participants who exhibited higher levels of spirituality also showed higher levels of the trait Openness, while more conventionally religious participants were shown to be higher in Agreeableness. After comparing the self-report Big Five questionnaires to the peer questionnaires, the results showed that spiritual individuals were more likely to exaggerate their levels of Openness and to rate it as more desirable. Likewise, religious individuals were more likely to exaggerate their Agreeableness and rate the trait as more desirable. Finally, they found that religious people tend to exaggerate their Agreeableness both because of the personal desirability of the trait and because of the trait’s social desirability. Spiritual people tend to exaggerate their Openness because they find the trait to be personally desirable, with social desirability playing a less important role. This means that religious people over-claim their levels of Agreeableness due to the societal expectations for a conventionally religious individual, and because it is personally important to their religious beliefs. For spiritual individuals, it is more about the personal desirability of being open, creative, and curious.

Do the results of this study mean we should be suspicious of the smiling person who shakes our hand during the sign of peace every Sunday? It is hard to disagree that being part of certain social groups, especially religious groups, pressures individuals to act a certain way and exhibit certain traits. Similarly, it is a natural tendency to believe you exhibit certain traits that you find desirable, as a boosting mechanism for self-esteem. This study has some issues, however, that call for further study on this topic. First, the sample was relatively homogenous—97% White, all homeowners, and in a town that is predominantly Christian. Is it possible that “religious” in this study is a synonym for “Christian”? If so, we could only say that Christianity is associated with exaggerating Agreeableness, as we do not have enough data on other religious groups. Second of all, it is not universally accepted that peer reports of Big Five traits are representations of “true” personality. Future studies would ideally use a combination of peer reports, behavioral data, and life data such as job history, academic records, and other official records to provide a more holistic view of true personality. Lastly, the phenomenon of self-verification states that we want others to see us the way we see ourselves, so we act in a way that makes others see us this way. It is possible that eventually, these religious individuals will want so badly to appear Agreeable to their peers that they actually become more Agreeable. Don’t doubt that smiling face just yet—hold out for some further studies.


John, O., Naumann, L., & Soto, C. (2010). Paradigm shift to the integrative Big Five trait taxonomy: History, measurement, and conceptual issues. In O. John, R. Robins, & L. Pervin (Eds.) Handbook of personality: Theory and research (3rd ed., pp. 114-158). New York:  Guilford Press.

Ludeke, S., & Carey, B. (2015). Two mechanisms of biased responding account for the association between religiousness and misrepresentation in Big Five self-reports. Journal of Research in Personality, 57, 43-47.

Vazire, S., & Carlson, E. N. (2011). Others sometimes know us better than we know ourselves. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 104-108.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s