University Of California Researcher Explains How Religion Shapes Your Personality
Psychological researcher Madeline Lenhausen explains how displaying certain personality traits could be linked to your belief in God.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | December 04, 2023
A recent study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined whether changes in the level of one's religious belief influences changes in personality, or changes in personality precede these changes in religiosity.
I recently spoke to Madeline Lenhausen, Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis, lead author of the study, to discuss these connections between personality and religiosity and the possible life experiences and individual differences associated with the same. Here is a summary of our conversation.
What inspired you to investigate the relationship between changes in personality and religiosity?
I was initially driven by a curiosity about people who have religious awakenings or people who experience the exact opposite and leave their church, never turning back. I wondered what motivated this change, or what happened after the change. This eventually evolved into a curiosity about smaller, gradual changes in religiosity over time and how that may or may not be causally linked to changes in personality.
Given that there already are established personality differences between religious and nonreligious people, it seems plausible that smaller changes (e.g., changes that do not lead to total (de)conversion) in religiosity may be connected to smaller changes in personality.
Could you offer some insight into why the association between personality traits and religiosity primarily occurs at the between-person level?
Finding that two variables are associated at the within-person level is one step toward causation. One step toward being able to say "this variable causes that variable to do this." At the between-person level, we do not have that level of certainty.
We just know that those personality traits and religiosity are associated with one another, but we do not necessarily know why, and it is likely that they are not directly influencing each other. So finding that most of the connections between personality and religiosity are at the between-person level suggests that there may be some third (or fourth, or fifth...) variable that inadvertently connects personality and religiosity together.
Basically, personality traits and religiosity are both aspects that make up our identity, and our identity is susceptible to being changed through other outside forces, like trauma for example. And a traumatic event could stir up changes in both our personality and religiosity, without personality and religiosity ever affecting each other directly.
Could you elaborate on why increases in agreeableness and extraversion may be connected to increases in religiosity at a within-person level? What are some real-life examples or scenarios where this may occur?
Finding a positive association between extraversion and religiosity at the within-person level was more of an anomaly, we did not expect that result. It could be possible that when people feel more religiously connected, they in turn feel more connected with their peers and loved ones.
Additionally, some religions encourage community engagement, outreach, volunteer work, etc., and the increase of these behaviors may lead someone to feeling more extraverted, and in turn, participating in more religious social events.
Agreeableness is a trait broadly defined by themes related to prosocial behavior, compassion, modesty, and cooperation. These themes are echoed in most major religions, and encouraged in religious text and ritual (e.g., "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." – Ephesians 4:32).
So, it is likely the case that when people begin to engage more in religion, they start to also feel more agreeable. Whether or not this actually leads to more agreeable behavior is still up for debate.
That is, as most personality data is obtained from people reporting on their own personality, at most, these findings just show that when people become more religious, they also start to perceive themselves as more agreeable.
Could you elaborate on the implications of the gender differences in how personality traits relate to religiosity?
We found that women who are more religious tend to be more reserved, and men who are more religious tend to be more agreeable and conscientious compared to people who are less religious.
Religious women may be more reserved and passive due to particular religious traditions that encourage this behavior. Men, on average, tend to have a stronger commitment to their religious institution and that, in turn, may be related to their higher levels of conscientiousness, as part of conscientiousness is made up of traits related to persistence and responsibility.
Lastly, we found men who were more religious tended to be more agreeable compared to less religious men, whereas we found no association in women between their levels of agreeableness and religiosity.
This finding stood out because, on average, women tend to be higher than men in both agreeableness and religiosity. So, it appears that women just tend to be high in agreeableness, regardless of their levels of religiosity, whereas men's level of agreeableness is more dependent on religious teachings that guide them toward more agreeable behavior.
How do age, religious upbringing, and religious affiliation influence the associations between personality traits and religiosity?
We didn't find any effect of age on the associations between personality and religiosity, suggesting the level of their association remains consistent across people's lifespans.
We did, however, find that religious upbringing and religious affiliation influence the associations between personality and religiosity. For religious upbringing, we found that people who grew up in a religious family had a stronger negative association between levels of openness (a trait broadly defined by levels of intellect and imagination) and religiosity.
To put it simply, I'll break this finding into two points. First, people who were more open than others tended to be less religious, and people who were less open than others tended to be more religious. This association between high levels of openness and low levels of religiosity tended to be even stronger in people who grew up in a religious family.
For religious affiliation, we found that religious people had a stronger association between their personality and religiosity compared to nonreligious people. This finding could suggest there are consistent and enduring beliefs about the personality characteristics of religious people, whereas there aren't really many preconceived personality characteristics of nonreligious people.
As I mentioned earlier, it is possible that the expectations of the personality characteristics of religious people leak into people's self-perceptions when answering questions about their personalities.
Expectations like "Religion encourages compassion and kindness, thus religious people are compassionate and kind. I am religious, so I am compassionate and kind" may exist when responding to personality questions, whereas nonreligious people do not have internal connections between their personality and religiosity.