Religion, health, and personality

Religion, health, and personality May 30, 2012

Jonathan Morgan


Each month new studies emerge about how religious belief affects well-being: belief in a loving, forgiving God is linked to slower progression of HIV; pro-religious people have better heart health. Each new study explores different facets of spirituality and religiosity, and different types of health. But what if this correlation is just a side effect of another, deeper connection? Corinna Loeckenhoff, a psychologist from Cornell, argues that personality may be that deeper factor, and her research backs her up.

Read MoreReally, it’s surprising that this work hasn’t been done before Loeckenhoff. Studying how personality affects religious belief has been a fertile field for the psychology of religion for quite some time. Vassilis Saroglou, the director of the Center of Psychology of Religion in France, is one of the prominent voices in this area. His studies, and most others, use the Big Five personality traits: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Each trait is rated on a continuum and has various facets. For example, ‘gregariousness’ and ‘excitement-seeking’ are sub-categories of Extraversion.

Using these profiles Saroglou has established a reliable link between religious belief and both high Conscientiousness and high Agreeableness. On the other hand, high marks in Openness are negatively correlated to religious belief but positively related to most understandings of spirituality. This research merely points to relationship. So since Conscientious is linked with religiosity and spirituality, people who are deliberate, organized and meet challenges with discipline and confidence show high levels of both spirituality and religiosity.

Personality has also been linked to health. These studies date back to the time of Hippocrates when he described both personality and illness in proportions of black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. While we no longer look to bile or phlegm to explain the relationship, research continues to maintain the stance that well-being and personality are related. High scores on Openness and Conscientiousness promote better mental health. Or, more predictably and obviously, high Neuroticism relates to poor mental health.

Given these three relationships (personality and belief, personality and health, and belief and health) the question seems blatant: does personality account for the link between belief and health? But unraveling these relationships is deeply complicated.

Corinna Loeckenhoff tackled the complexity with a battery of surveys. She teamed up with Gail Ironson, a psychologist who has worked extensively with HIV/AIDS patients, to study how mental health of people living with HIV related to their personality traits and their spirituality.

Before getting to the results, we’ll go through a quick run-down of the various surveys used. Personality was measured with the Five Factor Model mentioned above. Spirituality and Religiosity was measured by the Ironson-Wood Spirituality/Religious Index, or IWSRI. And mental health was measured by five different scales

It may be off-putting to think about measuring Spirituality and Religiosity (S/R), but the IWSRI is more descriptive than evaluative. Gandhi wouldn’t have gotten an A+; he would’ve received a picture with categories like “Sense of Peace” or “Faith in God.” These subcategories are grouped under the broader scales of “spirituality” and “religiosity.” What emerges from these surveys is a comprehensive picture of how people think of and relate to what they consider sacred.

While each of these measures is individually intriguing, the truly remarkable part of this research comes from studying the relationship between them all. The simple two-way relationships that past research had found were again confirmed. Agreeableness and Conscientiousness were related to Religiosity. Openness was related to Spirituality.

In the relationship between personality and S/R, some more detailed connections emerged with the specific facets of each trait. For example, the relationship between openness and spirituality is driven primarily by two facets of openness: aesthetics and ideas. So not just everyone who is open to new experiences is likely to be spiritual, but instead specifically those who have a deep appreciation of beauty and intellectual curiosity are likely to be spiritual. These types of studies are no guarantee, nor do they determine causality – they merely point to patterns.

But these patterns challenge theological ideas about the divine and philosophical ideas about human nature. If the myriad religious beliefs in our communities are not just a difference of opinion but a difference of personality, how does one judge the truth of each perspective? How do we speak across that difference? Interfaith dialogue is one thing, but inter-perspective dialogue holds a whole different set of challenges.  A Hindu and a Muslim with similar personality types might find a conversation much easier than two Christians with dramatically different personalities.

The challenges these patterns pose will be that much more substantial if causation between belief and personality could be drawn. Figuring out how personality and S/R effect each other in relation to health is one step in that direction. Loeckenhoff ran a linear regression to examine the relative contribution of each factor on health. Both factors were influential, but which was more significant?

The two factors (Personality and S/R) together accounted for 44% of the variance in mental health. When Personality was considered before S/R factors, it accounted for 35% of the variance. Adding the S/R factors afterwards didn’t significantly increase the explained variance, adding 5%. In contrast, considering S/R factors first accounted for only 21% of the variance.  Adding personality added 19% to the explained variance.

If you don’t read mediation analyses for fun, those numbers are probably a jumble, but they’re telling an important story. For one, they suggest that personality is more strongly associated with mental health than spirituality or religiosity are. Further, personality is related to health in ways that S/R doesn’t account for. The strongest claim that this study makes is that “personality traits fully account for the association of S/R with mental health.”

That statement probably needs some caveats and definitely deserves further study, but Loeckenhoff and crew are strong in their assertion. And not without cause, since the data points in this direction. Furthermore, this claim fits the understanding that spirituality and religiosity develop as basic personality traits are shaped and molded by culture, environment, and experience.

If Loeckenhoff is correct, what do we do with the studies linking a positive view of God with slower progression of HIV or intrinsic religiosity with better heart health? Perhaps more crucially, does understanding spirituality and religiosity as products of personality undermine their “specialness?”

At first glance this conclusion may seem to do just that. But this understanding of belief also points towards a more empathic understanding of others. This empathic understanding can help mend the rifts in our communities and, in doing so, lead towards a deeper understanding of what we are each calling sacred from our many different perspectives.


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