Personality Traits Help Explain Creationist Beliefs

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A belief in the literal Biblical version of creation may boil down, in part, to personality.

A new study suggests that people who believe in creationism are more likely to prefer to take in information via their senses versus via intuition. In contrast, religious believers who see the Bible's creation story as symbolic tend to be more intuitive.

"Intuitives tend to be much more at home with symbolic things, generally," said Andrew Village, the head of the theology and religious studies program at York St. John University in the United Kingdom.

Personality and religion

Village, an Anglican priest, is also a former scientist — before he trained in the ministry, he studied the ecology of birds of prey. He applied that scientific sensibility in the new study, which surveyed 663 English churchgoers on their beliefs about Genesis, the book of the Bible that describes the Earth's creation. [The Top 10 Creation Stories]

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin in 2009 prompted great interest in beliefs about evolution and creationism, Village told LiveScience. Creationism is the belief that God created humans and animals in their current form, as described in Genesis. The most literal of these beliefs holds that God created the universe in six days.

Previous studies have suggested that personality influences whether people will become religious, and if they are religious, what tradition they will gravitate toward, Village said. He wanted to investigate how personality influenced beliefs about Genesis, specifically.

To do so, he included personality measurements in his survey, focusing on personality traits first proposed by psychologist Carl Jung in 1921 and made famous by the Myers-Briggs personality test. This test is meant to reveal people's preferences for collecting information and making decisions.

The Myers-Briggs breaks people into four dichotomies: extroversion versus introversion, sensing versus intuition, thinking versus feeling and judging versus perception.

Extroverts prefer the company of others, whereas introverts like to be on their own. Those who fit into the "sensing" category like to gather information in concrete, tangible ways, whereas the intuitive rely on abstract feelings and hunches. "Thinkers" make decisions via logical, detached judgments, whereas "feelers" focus on empathy and consensus-building. 

Someone who is in the "judging" category prefers to use their thinking or feeling processes when interacting with the outside world, while someone in the "perceiving" category relies more on their sensing or intuition processes.

Biblical belief

Village's survey-takers were recruited in churches and thus were quite religious, with 93 percent reporting they attended church weeklyk and 90 percent saying they prayed daily. The survey of this group's creationist beliefs and personality traits revealed that the more people preferred "sensing" over intuitive information-gathering, the more likely they were to believe that Genesis should be interpreted literally. [Religious Mysteries: 8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]

This finding makes sense, Village said. If someone believes the Bible is the word of God, and that the Bible is true, it follows logically that Genesis is true.

"When people think, 'Oh, creationists are unthinking people,' they're not," Village said. "They're just using a different system."

Intuitive people are more willing to speculate and less likely to take things at face value, Village reported Dec. 23 in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. More indirectly, "thinkers," or people who prefer logical decision-making, are more likely than feelers to believe in creationism, Village found. This was explained by the fact that thinkers tend to gravitate toward more conservative religious traditions, however.

It's important to note that the Myers-Briggs psychological preferences say nothing about IQ, Village said — so the study is agnostic on whose interpretation of the Bible is right or wrong.

"It's not our level of thinking and whether we're smart or not," he said. "It's just the way we make decisions, rather than our intelligence."

The findings may be useful to preachers looking for new ways to connect with their flocks, Village said. They also explain why people from different religious traditions often fail to understand one another, he said.

"In some ways a lot of the differences are about differences in personality and psychological preferences rather than the content" of beliefs, he said. "People who have a strong sense of, 'We must decide rationally and logically,' will go about their religion in a particular way, and people who decide more on their values will go about their religion in a particular way."

Editor's note: This article was updated Jan. 7 to correct the Darwin-related celebration in 2009. It was the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book, "On the Origin of Species."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.