Christianity May Not “Quiet the Ego”

Well, let’s start by admitting the obvious: we’re all a little biased when it comes to the way we see ourselves. We’ve all been known to overestimate our positive attributes and underestimate our flaws from time to time.

Psychologists call this effect self-enhancement. The basic idea behind self-enhancement is that people are prone to evaluate their own abilities and traits quite generously, especially when they’re evaluating abilities and traits that are central to their identity.

To put it another way: we can’t all be above average at everything, but we can all think of ourselves as above average!

For example, college students who are average in terms of SAT scores and GPA tend to rate themselves as above average in terms of “academic ability.” And people rate the sound of their own voices as more attractive than average.

While this effect has been well documented by researchers, what’s been less clear is whether people are innately likely to self-enhance all their attributes, or whether people can be culturally conditioned to evaluate some of their attributes more objectively.

So a group of researchers had an idea: why not study whether Christians tend to self-enhance their levels of religious devotion?

The idea is that Christianity emphasizes what psychologists call “self-effacement norms.” In other words, it puts a cultural emphasis on modesty and humility, so maybe Christians will be less likely to self-enhance their religious observance.

Not so, it turns out. In a series of studies involving thousands of people, the researchers found that Christians tend to self-enhance by overestimating how closely they follow tenets of their religion like the commandments of faith and the commandments of communion.

Moreover, Christians are far more likely to overestimate themselves on these measures than nonbelievers, consistent with the idea that people tend to self-enhance when evaluating traits and behaviors that are fundamental to their identity.

To put it another way, the Christians tended to all think of themselves as above average in terms of how closely they adhered to the tenets of Christianity.

Interpreting the findings, the researchers suggest that “Christianity does not quiet the ego,” pointing out that self-enhancement appears to be a “universal” tendency that resists the “normative pressure” of a cultural emphasis on humility.

Image: Flickr/Jerry and Pat Donaho under CC BY-ND 2.0