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Faith

Do Our Personalities Influence How Religious We Are?

Just as with other arbitrary labels, our personalities and ways of thinking and behaving are another way we siphon and close others off from getting to know us.

Terms like ‘extroverted’, ‘introverted’, ‘creative’, ‘analytic’, ‘organized’ have become part of our lexicon as common ways to describe our behavioral patterns. Personality Psychology is a prominent area of science that seeks to contextualize these characteristics and unique tendencies as they relate to our neurobiology, family dynamics, and environment.

I recently made a 5-part video series delving into each personality construct, their link with religion and spirituality (as separate constructs), and tools to broaden the deficits we may lack as a function of our temperament. Temperament being the biogenetic basis or foundation for our personalities, which adapt and adopt environmental facets, such as a natural introvert having to act more as an extrovert due to work demands or family pressure.

I am going to zero in on the Five Factor Model (FFM), illustrating an example and its link with our relationship with the Transcendent.

Conscientiousness (subdimensions are Industriousness and Orderliness)

Research finds that self-discipline, long-term commitment, and high work ethic categorize this dimension. Individuals high in industriousness tend to become managers, administrators, or even CEOs due to their punctuality, rigor, and attention to detail.

Individuals high in orderliness favor order and predictability, this dimension has the strongest link with political conservatism (support for institutions which seek to maintain order such as the police). This factor is correlated more strongly with religiosity then spirituality as organized religion provides structure, organization, and familiarity. These individuals may lack warmth or openness to ‘out-groups’ and lean more towards authoritarian attitudes such as hostility towards other religious groups. 

Neuroticism (subdimensions are Withdrawal and Volatility)

Research finds that this dimension has the strongest link with mental health illness as it is the tendency to experience negative emotionality more intensely and frequently. These individuals tend to take many more sick days, experience persistent stress and worry, mostly about nontrivial things that others do not even notice. Individuals high in withdrawal are recluses, they fear novelty and perceive new stimulus as dangerous.

Individuals high in Volatility (think the Hulk) are ticking time bombs, they are constantly ‘on edge’ and paranoid, ready to explode on unsuspecting strangers who accidentally cut them off in traffic. However, on a positive note, these individuals tend to be realists and can have better intuition such as recognizing danger or deceit. This factor has the strongest negative correlation with religiosity and spirituality. 

Agreeableness (subdimensions are Compassion and Politeness)

Research finds that these individuals are warm, open, inviting, and nurturing. These individuals demonstrate high altruism such as volunteering, taking care of others, and helping even in spite of their own health or safety. Individuals high in compassion are interested in the problems of others and people turn to them as good listeners. Individuals high in politeness are respectful, obedient to authority, and avoid confrontation.

This dimension is strongly linked with religiosity as it supports social cohesion and maintaining a supportive community that cares for one another. Religious individuals tend to have higher altruistic behaviors than ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ individuals, who may neglect community or family obligations by constantly trying to ‘find themselves’. These individuals may risk being taken advantage of due to their good nature or failing to negotiate on their own behalf (lack assertiveness). 

Extraversion (subdimensions are Enthusiasm and Assertiveness)

Research finds that these individuals are gregarious, energized by social contact, and joyful. This dimension has one of the strongest links with positive mental health as it is related to experiencing positive affect more robustly. Individuals high in enthusiasm often present as happy, are easy to get to know, and optimistic. Individuals high in assertiveness tend to ‘take charge’ of situations, are very opinionated and influential.

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Extraverts are highly religious as they enjoy and crave being around others, sharing similar opinions and captivating an audience, and moderately spiritual. Introverts tend to practice solitude and report deeper spiritual experiences, as they are more in touch with their inner selves. Extraverts are more likely to be impulsive and can learn towards sociopathic behaviors (particularly if they are low on agreeableness) such as using people for selfish purposes. It is of little surprise that most politicians tend to be high in extraversion (‘we mistake confidence for competence’). 

Openness to Experience (subdimensions are Intellect and Creativity)

Research finds that these individuals are highly creative, abstract thinkers, and curious. This dimension has the strongest link with political liberalism, as these individuals promote non-hierarchal thinking and questioning of the status quo (‘defund the police’). Individuals high in intellect are articulate, philosophical, and enjoy being presented with novel information (think Albert Einstein). Individuals high in creativity are highly open, appreciative of the arts, and imaginative (think Walt Disney).

Creativity is one of the strongest correlates with spirituality as both are immersive ways to experience the world more profoundly. Conversely, they tend to be much lower on religiosity as they often do not promote a rigid system of behaviors and beliefs. 

What this means for our Ummah

I wholeheartedly believe that so much commonality could be gained if we supported one another more robustly as a community. Not only as congregants united for a single purpose, but unique congregants united for a single purpose.

Just as with other arbitrary labels, our personalities and ways of thinking and behaving are another way we siphon and close others off from getting to know us. It is common for introverts to find extroverts obnoxious or extroverts to find introverts boring or creatives to dislike the rigid thinking styles of analytical folks, while conscientious people cannot fathom the disorder and asymmetrical nature of individuals high in openness to experience.

Social science suggests we tend to associate ourselves most closely with those who act similarly to us. Let us reflect and re-assess where our strengths lie and find people who can complement our deficits, so that we may all prosper and flourish. Mohammad Ali said, ‘the person who looks at the world at 50, the same way they did at 20 has wasted 30 years of their life.’ And our Holy Prophet said “the believers are reflections of one another”, so let us open our minds and hearts to how others may uniquely look at the world, as an advantage for our community.


References

Lace, J. W., Evans, L. N., Merz, Z. C., & Handal, P. J. (2019). Five-Factor Model Personality Traits and Self-Classified Religiousness and Spirituality. Journal of Religion and Health, 1-26.

Piedmont, R. L., & Wilkins, T. A. (2005). The role of personality in understanding religious and spiritual constructs. Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality1, 253-273.

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