by Jia He, Kenyon ’17
Are religious people really more friendly, kind, and accepting than the average person? In the field of psychology, there has been much speculation in regard to how religiousness may intersect with certain personality traits. People who report religion and spirituality as a huge aspect of their lives have consistently reported higher scores on the Agreeableness and Openness to Experience facets in the Big Five personality inventory. But seeing that such results are often obtained through self-reports, one is inclined to question whether the link between religion and these traits is real or exaggerated by religious people who value Agreeableness and Openness as traits that they wish to possess.
According to Steven G. Ludeke from the University of Southern Denmark and Bridget Carey from the University of Minnesota, there are several layers to this question. In the broadest context, they seek to find out if religiousness is truly associated with certain Big Five traits, or if this association is a mere result of inflated answers on self reports. More specifically, however, they have divided the concept of religion into two subcomponents: “conventional religiousness” and “spirituality,” which refers to more of an emphasis on mysticism-related measures. Ludeke and Carey hypothesized that people scoring high on conventional religiousness will most value Agreeableness-related characteristics like politeness and helpfulness, whereas people scoring high on spirituality will most value Openness-related characteristics like curiosity and creativity. Therefore, conventionally religious individuals will exaggerate their levels of Agreeableness and spiritual individuals will exaggerate their levels Openness.
The researchers also recognized that there may be other factors that could contribute to the inflation of certain responses. Previous research have generally supported the idea of socially desirable responding (SDR), which suggests that people are more likely to rate themselves higher on traits that they think are universally desirable by their society. For the purpose of this study, Ludeke and Carey have further presented the idea of idiographically desirable responding (IDR), which suggests that not only are people exaggerating traits that they think are desirable by society at large, they are selectively choosing to overclaim traits that are specifically deemed to be desirable to themselves. This would explain how conventionally religious people and spiritual people differ in the traits that they exhibit high levels of. Thus, SDR and IDR serve as mediators between religiousness and trait selectivity in questionnaires: it is not religiousness in itself that causes people to overclaim levels of a desirable trait; people are overclaiming traits as a result of their perception of how desirable it is to both their religious community and to themselves.
Ludeke and Carey set out to test their ideas by administering self-report questionnaires pertaining to the Big Five traits, the desirability of traits, and levels of conventional religiousness and spirituality. Participants were also required to complete the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (BIDR), which would measure the extent of socially desirable responding in two ways: via Impression Management (IM), which looks at denial of socially deviant behaviors, and Self-Deceptive Enhancement (SDE), which measures participants’ overconfidence and egotism. These questionnaires were administered over a course of 14 years to a sample of 524 members of the Eugene-Springfield Community Sample in Oregon, who were predominantly Caucasian and middle-aged. The participants were also given three extra copies of peer ratings for the Big Five Inventory personality test to give to people who knew them relatively well, including friends, relatives, spouses, co-workers, and significant others. The researchers could then compare the participants’ responses to the Big Five Inventory to their peers’ assessments of their personality.
After running several correlations between the responses to these questionnaires, the researchers produced three key findings. First, peer reports did confirm the existence of the certain traits that were hypothesized to be overclaimed by the participant: people who are high in conventional religiousness also scored highly (according to their peers) in Agreeableness, and people who are high in spirituality scored high on Openness. Second, however, the research indicated that although their peers’ ratings agreed with their self-ratings, their self-ratings of certain traits were still higher than their peers’ assessments. In conjunction, these results show that although religious people are more likely to exhibit higher-than-average levels of Agreeableness and Extraversion, they are still exaggerating their own levels. Finally, the researchers found that although socially desirable responding only served as a mediator for conventional religiousness and overclaiming Agreeableness, idiographically desirable responding acted as a mediator for both. This shows that above the participants’ desire to have traits that are socially acceptable by the society, they are more inclined to want traits that are desired to themselves as an individual.
Although Ludeke and Carey’s results were substantiated, we should still take their results with a grain of salt. One facet of this study that could pose as a threat to the results is the fact that the peers may not be the most objective judge of the participants’ personality. First, they most likely come from the same background and community as the participant, and would thus share similar values for certain traits. They are also emotionally close to the participant, and their responses may thus be positively biased toward the participants’ characteristics. With that in mind, the results are still an interesting approach into seeing how people may protect their self-concepts and self-esteems by choosing exaggerate traits that are personally valuable to them.
Ludeke, S.G., & 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.