Religion and the Big Five

Rabbi Azriel Hauptman

We are witness to a common phenomenon in our times that young men and women commonly experience a religious transformation as young adults which leads them to higher levels of devotion and intensity in their Yiddishkeit. When the change is dramatic, it is sometimes called “flipping-out”. Parents of “flip-outs” sometimes feel that their child’s personality has changed and that their fun-loving and carefree child has been smothered by the rigors of their heightened religiosity. Is this really true? Well, yes and no. We will try to explain.

One of the ways that personality is measured is using the “Big Five Personality Traits”. Researchers use five broad categories of personality, and by measuring where an individual is placed on a scale of each category, one can capture the general personality of that individual. The five categories are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, which are sometimes known by the acronym OCEAN.

  • Openness – whether a person is curious and adventurous or consistent and cautious.
  • Conscientiousness – the tendency to be efficient and organized or easy-going and disorderly.
  • Extraversion – the degree to which a person is outgoing and energetic or solitary and reserved.
  • Agreeableness – whether a person is friendly and compassionate or challenging and detached.
  • Neuroticism – whether a person is sensitive and nervous or secure and confident.

These are the five domains painted in very broad strokes, and another article is needed to explain them well. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the first trait – openness. Individuals who score high on the scale of openness are adventurous, imaginative, curious, and appreciate a variety of experiences. They also tend to be more creative and in touch with their feelings. Individuals who score low on this scale tend to pursue fulfillment through perseverance and tend to be pragmatic and sometimes even dogmatic.

Please note that scoring high or low does not mean better or worse. These are two ends of a spectrum with no specific advantage in any direction. These merely describe personality types.

What is the effect of religion on this trait? Interestingly enough, researchers studied the effect of religion on these five personality traits, and in one study [Saroglou, V. (2002). Religion and the five factors of personality: a meta-analytic review. Personality and Individual Differences, 32(1), 15–25] they discovered a difference in openness between religious fundamentalism and mature religiosity. Whereas religious fundamentalism is associated with lower openness, mature religiosity is associated with high openness. What is the possible reason for this difference?

A likely explanation is that when one’s religious observance has not yet matured, one would not know how to integrate a heightened level of religious observance with their natural personality. This is especially true if one adopts a higher level of observance in their late adolescence or early adulthood. Although Yiddishkeit contains many restrictions and limitations, there is no need to forfeit one’s natural tendency to be curious and adventurous if that is one’s personality. However, at this stage, one might come across as somewhat of a religious fundamentalist, and hence score low on the openness scale.

However, as time passes, the natural personality tends to reemerge and if one’s natural tendency is to be high on the scale of openness, this shall return. Hence, when one measures openness on someone who has mature religiosity, we find the opposite effect – religious observance actually enhances one’s openness.

Let us now return to our original question. Is it really true that strengthening one’s religious observance smothers one’s personality? We answered, yes and no. We now know that this means that it is sometimes true in the short term, but, with time, one’s personality will not only not be harmed by one’s observance, but will actually be enhanced.

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