Does Religion Promote Self-Enhancement?

Rather than fostering humility, does religiosity inflate pride instead?

Posted Sep 21, 2020

Self-enhancement is when one is motivated to maintain or increase how positively one views oneself. The desire for self-enhancement seems to be a universal human motive, yet it has long been decried as a vice by major religions, especially Christianity, which preach the virtue of being humble and self-effacing. For example, Proverbs (16:18) states, “Pride goes before destruction,” and Thomas Aquinas described pride as the deadliest of sins (Gebauer et al., 2017).

In more modern times, some scholars have argued that religion has an “ego-quietening” functioning that should help to reduce the natural human tendency to self-enhancement. Considering this, one might expect that being religious would help to dampen the desire for self-enhancement.

However, research has found that religious people consistently self-enhance in areas that are centrally important to their core values (Sedikides & Gebauer, 2020). It has even been conjectured that religious people self-enhance in general more than non-religious people, perhaps because they have a special relationship with God. However, the evidence for this is somewhat mixed, and religious self-enhancement may depend largely on how highly religion is valued within a particular culture rather than being an effect of religion in general.

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The peacock: a symbol of both spirituality and pride
Source: mladylake/Pixabay

Several lines of evidence have been found that religious people self-enhance in terms of their religious identity, which accords with the view that self-enhancement is universal (Sedikides & Gebauer, 2020). An example of self-enhancement is found in the Better-Than-Average Effect, in which people generally claim to be superior to others in socially desirable attributes. It is statistically impossible for most people to be better than average, yet most people show this effect, showing that illusory feelings of superiority are highly prevalent. The Better-Than-Average Effect has been demonstrated in studies on Christians who claimed to live up to central Christian commandments more so than the average Christian (Gebauer et al., 2017).

Evidence of religious self-enhancement was also found in a study using the overclaiming technique. This technique involves showing people a list of topics and asking them to rate how familiar they are with each one; the catch is that some of the items are bogus foils, so claiming to be familiar with a foil means claiming knowledge of something that does not exist.

Studies on religious overclaiming have asked people to rate their familiarity with religious topics, such as characters and events from the Bible (Gebauer et al., 2017) or the Qur’an (Jones et al., 2020), most of which were real, with several foils thrown in (e.g., two of the following stories from the New Testament are real, one is a foil: “the Good Samaritan,” “Jesus rejects the golden goblet,” “John the Baptist exalts Christ”) (Gebauer et al., 2017).

People who identified as more religious tended to overclaim more religious knowledge than secular individuals. This is rather ironic, as Pew surveys have found that atheists and agnostics have objectively more religious knowledge, including knowledge of Christianity than the average Christian (Pew Research Center, 2010, 2019). Hence, despite the self-centrality of religion, religious people tend to know less about the subject than people who reject religion altogether (a topic I discuss in more detail here).

Self-enhancement can also lead to overclaiming valued personality traits. That is, people may overclaim how much they possess traits that they regard as personally important. Specifically, a study (Ludeke & Carey, 2015) found that conventionally religious people tended to overclaim agreeableness, a trait related to being kind, considerate, and helpful — characteristics that are emphasised by religious teachings. Overclaiming was assessed by comparing people’s self-ratings to ratings by other people who knew them well, with the higher self- compared to other-ratings indicating overclaiming.

The study found that conventionally religious people tended to overclaim how agreeable they were, especially when they regarded agreeable traits as being personally important. Interestingly, people who highly valued spirituality in the sense of having mystical experiences tended to overclaim openness to experience, a trait related to being imaginative and open-minded, while conventionally religious people did not.

Probably the most well-known type of self-enhancement is narcissism, and there is evidence linking religiosity with a specific kind of narcissism.

Narcissism refers to a grandiose and unrealistic estimation of one’s good qualities that make one special and worthy of admiration by others. Two distinct types have been identified — agentic and communal narcissism (Gebauer et al., 2012). Agentic narcissism,  which is the most generally known type, involves unrealistically positive self-evaluation of traits related to agency (i.e. social potency), such as competence, power, and intelligence. Communal narcissism involves unrealistically positive self-evaluation of traits related to communion (i.e. social connectedness), such as being exceptionally helpful to others and able to make the world a better place.

Importantly, research has found that people who know communal narcissists well actually rate them as being unhelpful, which is the opposite of the way they see themselves (Gebauer et al., 2012). Furthermore, a study (Gebauer et al., 2017) comparing narcissism in Christians and non-religious people in three countries (eastern Germany, the UK, and the USA) found that while they did not differ on agentic narcissism, Christians were higher than those with no religion on communal narcissism in all three countries.

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Heavenly pride goes before a heavenly fall
Source: GeorgeB2/Pixabay

That Christians were not lower on agentic narcissism yet higher on communal narcissism, along with the fact that they do not appear to be self-effacing on secular domains, led Sedikides and Gebauer (2020) to conclude that Christians have a general tendency to self-enhance more overall than non-believers. They speculated that this general tendency to self-enhancement might derive from their belief that they have a special relationship with God.

Although I find this an intriguing idea, I am not entirely convinced because there is evidence that general Christian self-enhancement seems to depend on one’s religion being highly valued in the culture in which one lives. For example, Sedikides and Gebauer cite research that found that self-esteem is positively related to religiosity in more highly religious European countries, whereas self-esteem has little or no relationship with religiosity in more secular European countries. This is in line with the "religion as social value hypothesis," which holds that adhering to the values of one’s culture increases the amount of respect that one receives from others and that in cultures in which religion is highly valued, being religious has social benefits that boost one’s self-esteem.

Furthermore, the study on narcissism cited earlier found that Christians were highest in communal narcissism in the US, which is a more religious country than in Germany or the UK, which are comparatively more secular, although the effect was still significant in these countries.

It would be interesting to see if this effect still remained in even more highly secular countries such as Japan or the Czech Republic. If general Christian self-enhancement derived from believing that one has a special relationship with God, then it would be reasonable to expect that Christians would have higher self-esteem in secular cultures where religiosity has less social value, but this does not seem to be the case. Sedikides and Gebauer argue that the fact that Christians do not self-enhance less than others on secular domains indicates a net effect of self-enhancement. However, it may be relevant that in secular countries, religion is still at least generally tolerated.

Additionally, much of the research on the subject has been conducted in countries that have had a history of being predominantly Christian, and that has only become relatively secular in recent times. It would therefore be interesting to examine whether Christian self-enhancement occurs in countries that have never been predominantly Christian or in which Christianity is less well tolerated. The religion as a social value hypothesis might predict weakened or even negative effects on self-enhancement under such conditions. If this were the case, it would suggest that general Christian self-enhancement is dependent on social factors rather than theological beliefs peculiar to Christianity. It would also be useful to compare self-enhancement in non-Christian religions to determine if they also show greater overall self-enhancement than people with no religion.

References

Gebauer, J.E., Sedikides, C., Verplanken, B., & Maio, G. R. (2012). Communal narcissism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(5), 854–878. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029629

Gebauer, J. E., Sedikides, C., & Schrade, A. (2017). Christian self-enhancement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(5), 786–809. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000140

Jones, D. N., Neria, A. L., Helm, F. A., Sahlan, R. N., & Carré, J. R. (2020). Religious Overclaiming and Support for Religious Aggression. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(7), 1011–1021. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550620912880

Ludeke, S. G., & Carey, B. (2015). Two mechanisms of biased responding account for the association between religiousness and misrepresentation in Big Five self-reports. Journal of Research in Personality, 57, 43–47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2015.03.003

Pew Research Center. (2010, September 28). Who Knows What About Religion. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. https://www.pewforum.org/2010/09/28/u-s-religious-knowledge-survey-who-knows-what-about-religion/

Pew Research Center. (2019, July 23). What Americans Know About Religion. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. https://www.pewforum.org/2019/07/23/what-americans-know-about-religion/

Sedikides, C., & Gebauer, J. E. (2020). Do Religious People Self-Enhance? Current Opinion in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.08.002