Is Spirituality a Personality Trait?

Are some people more spiritual than others? Some psychologists seem to think so, as they have been busy constructing various psychological tests of spirituality. By implication, people who show the traits measured by these tests are more spiritual than those who do not embrace such traits.

What makes somebody score high on a psychological test of spirituality? Usually, high scores result from endorsing a specific set of values thought to indicate spirituality. These values might include, for example, altruism, unity, charity, inner peace, generosity, and purpose in life. In contrast, people who value individuality, solitude, competition, materialism, and expedience tend to test as not particularly spiritual.

I became interested in personality and spirituality inadvertently. I set out to study what motivates people and found 16 fundamental motives of life, everything from biological drives such as eating to psychological motives such as social contact and power. Virtually every significant goal people want from life seems reducible to combinations of the 16 fundamental life motives. Everybody embraces these motives, but individuals value or prioritize them differently. An individual's prioritization of the 16 life motives, called a Reiss Motivation Profile®, predicts the person's values, personality traits, and behavior in such diverse natural environments as the athletic field, classroom, and workplace. 

Soon after I published my book, Who am I? The 16 Basic Desires that Motivate our Actions and Define our Personalities, I was attacked by some religious leaders for leaving out God. My critics observed that God is the greatest of all motives for millions of religious people. How could I leave out such an important motivator of human experience and behavior?

Since my research questionnaires did not ask people about religion, I was astonished to discover the 16 life motives are the dimensions along which Christians and Jews perceive God. My research identified a life motive for Acceptance, and Christians believe in Christ as Savior. My research identified life motives for Power, Curiosity, and Order, and humans perceive God as almighty, omniscient, and permanent.  Human beings do not experience God through a spiritual dimension of personality, but through all 16 fundamental life motives or human needs.

Next, I studied motivation and religiosity. I learned that Idealism (the desire for social justice) is the primary motive driving young people to join the protestant clergy, but Honor (the desire for upright character) is the primary motive driving the congregation to attend religious services. When Jews embrace Judaism, or Catholics embrace Catholicism, they experience loyalty to the moral values of their parents, clan, and ethnic group.  

Spirituality is not a personality trait. Religion is not the 17th basic striving, as my critics have suggested. If I had recognized spirituality as a 17th striving, this would imply that a person's spirituality is separate and distinct from the rest of his or her life. As my theory stands today with no separate striving for spirituality, human beings have 16 basic strivings or needs. They are free to gratify all, some, or none of those needs through religious or spiritual activities, and they are free to gratify all, some, or none of those needs through secular activities. Religion is a way of life, not just another need or personality trait.

To learn more, read The 16 Strivings for God: The New Psychology of Religious Experiences by Steven Reiss, Ph.D. (Mercer University Press).

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