The Effects of Faith on Personality Characteristics

Julie Taylor



 The effects of faith on the personality characteristics of locus of control, optimism, and self-esteem was researched through the use of a survey administered to 54 students and faculty from a small, private Illinois college and 35 students from a small community college in Illinois.  Each participant completed a survey indicating demographic data, a shortened version of Rotter’s Locus of Control, Alport’s Life Orientation Scale, Rosenberg’s self-esteem scale, and a faith based scale.  The hypothesis that people who rate a high personal relationship with God will be happier was supported with a .001 level of significance.  These findings are important because they give insight into a person’s faith and how that relates to their personality characteristics. 


            “Faith is holding on to God’s promises and finding your own fulfilled.”  In this one statement there is much truth for those with a religious orientation.  For Christians, having faith in God’s promises allows one to find fulfillment in life.  Faith is defined as an unquestioning belief that does not require proof or evidence.  In our society today, we find people have faith in several things from employers to spouses to ideals.  The word faith carries a totally different meaning for most people.  It could pertain to a person, place, thing, or ideal.  For a Christian, what is faith?  And how does that play a part in things like locus of control, self-esteem, and optimism? 

            All people experience difficulties of one type or another.  Some people have financial burdens and others deal with family problems.  There are three durations of stress: life events, chronic strains, and daily hassles and uplifts.  Life events include the birth of a child, divorce, and death; anything requiring adaptation during a short period of time.  Chronic strains, such as illness and injury, occur over a long period of time.  Daily hassles and uplifts are the common everyday stressors of life, including studying and family (Thoits 1995).  No matter what gender, racial, or economic background a person is born into, there will always be stressors in life. 

How people handle stressors is significant.  What people turn to in times of trouble is relevant.  Similar to procrastination, some people strive under pressure and some cannot handle the heat.  Likewise, with life’s difficulties, some people turn to methods of coping like smoking or drinking.  Others seem to strive in the midst of trouble.  Something seems to separate the two responses.  In orthodox Christianity, one’s faith can help them through the stressors of life.  It allows them to see a different perspective and continue to have faith in something greater than they are.  Still others, including those who claim a strong religious orientation, choose other ways of coping.

            Locus of Control, optimism, and self-esteem are good indicators of well being.  Using the Likert Scale to measure these degrees different psychologists have developed questionnaires that test for each of these categories.  From  some previous knowledge such as questionnaires and literature reviews, we see that a person with a high internal locus of control, optimism, and self-esteem tends to be happier and is able to deal with life difficulties in a healthier way. 

Locus of Control

Rotter described his concept of locus of control with two extremes of orientation, internal and external.  For people with internal orientation they share a belief that things happen that have been caused by their own actions, and they have control of their lives.  Persons with external locus of control believe that the situations they face are largely in the hands of fate, or chance, or the actions of others (Bee 123).

In research done by Pransky, lower levels of thought recognition led to lower levels of well being, while higher levels of thought recognition led to a higher well being.   He offered three possible explanations for this relationship, namely that greater thought recognition may lead to (1) a heightened sense of control, as people have more control over their thinking process than over their external environment; (2) a heightened sense of understanding of life experiences that, previously, may have been confusing or frightening; and (3) a heightened capacity to view things in a balanced fashion, leading to a more philosophical outlook on life (1997).  Thought recognition is the key factor that leads people back to their natural potential for healthy mental functioning. In current research, our findings on locus of control should be a little different than past studies using locus of control.  It is anticipated that there will be a heightened sense of external control, being from God, for individuals who have a strong faith and belief in God.


Optimism provides a sense of hope despite the circumstances.  One text describes an optimist as one who “believes that setbacks are temporary and usually caused by circumstances.  He is convinced that there is always some solution and that he will be able to work things out.  Confronted by defeat, he sees it as a challenge and tries harder to work things out” (Bee 124).  It is this Optimism allows us to see how a person gets through everyday stressors and difficult life events. 

Optimism has been linked to physical well-being and good health.  There is something more behind optimism than just seeing a glass half full.  According to research done by Chemers, Hu, and Garcia optimistic students report lower levels of psychological stress and loneliness.  Even when faced with difficulty and stress people with positive tendencies and optimism are able to cope better (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1992).  Current research will hopefully model this as we show a positive correlation between optimism and faith.


Self-esteem provides insight to the belief a person holds about him or herself.  High self-esteem is thinking that you are a worthwhile person.  This is generally viewed as a healthy characteristic.  However, there is a downside to high self-esteem.  Sometimes people with high self-esteem try to prove how much they can do or they take on tasks that cannot be finished.   Such things lead to self-defeating behaviors.  In many cases those with high self-esteem become aggressive in trying to defend themselves and then actually become susceptible to narcissism, which is an unhealthy self-focus and self-admiration (Cloninger 172).

High self-esteem correlates with happiness.  A recent study on college students provides some background information on self-esteem.  Bower describes the study done on 360 college students who were paired into five person teams to work on a group decision making task and then ranked the contributions of everyone in their group.  Most self-enhancers reported feeling much happier after the task and also scored much higher than their peers on self-importance, hostility, and condescension.  The results showed that self-enhancing students tend to have declining self-esteem when their academics did not meet their expectations (Bower 148).


            Our studies will now shift to examine research on faith, or religion.  Since the time of Freud, psychologists have considered the psychological aspect of religion.  Connections have been made and are continuously being made between the two.  Freud proposed that people seek security in God that they once received as a child from their parents (Gross 1959).  People are seeking something that the world and individuals cannot offer.  Since the time of Freud, more research has been made in this direction.  In the book, Your Child’s Faith, Dr. Larry D. Stephens explains that: “Adult perceptions of the character of God are impacted by early experiences with parents” (1996).  Stephens believed a bonding-nurturing type of relationship with parents builds a positive view of God’s character.  Similarly a harsh, overbearing, judgmental relationship with parents creates a negative view of God.  He goes on to state that the individual sense of religion found in the home has a lasting effect of one’s self-esteem and behavior as an adult.  

Darlene Leatherwood investigated this relation between early parental interaction and perceptions of God.  Her research indicated that “a person with positive experiences would be more inclined to view failures as setbacks and have a ‘try it again’ attitude and view God as helpful, allowing him/her to experience life in a more positive way” (1999).  Some characteristics that would be demonstrated in their portrayal of God would be a less judgmental and more forgiving person.  Leatherwood also found these people to be less likely to battle feelings of unworthiness and low self-esteem.  This research allows us to see themes of optimism and self-esteem begin to rise in relation to faith.

Maslow also discussed religion and science in his book Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences (1970).  He described how science and religion were two separate entities but that they were beginning to merge.  Maslow began to see the role they play within each other as he said “we shall have to redefine both science and religion” (Maslow 1970) 

Gordon Allport (1960) takes us to the root of the research we are seeking.  He describes three main stages in developing a belief system: 1)the raw creudulity stage-belief in the evidence of ones senses, imagination, and what others say;  2)doubts-in which a person questions what they have been told and search for answers; and 3)mature belief-which develop through affirmations and productive thinking. 

Beliefs can be made on any level and kept on any level.  However something between the second and the third stage causes us to question whether beliefs and faith are the same thing.  Many times the words are used interchangeably, but do they mean the same thing?  Allport suggests that after reaching the third stage, it is easy to see that faith is psychologically more complex than a simple belief (1960, 139-141).  So if faith is more than a simple belief, what exactly is faith?

Faith has been viewed in several different ways.  People have faith in ideals, people, places, and even medicine.  William E. Brock had faith in the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and in his products.  In the 1900’s, during the Great Depression, Brock faced the challenges of whether his company would survive  and if they could even pay their employees.  Because of Brock’s faith the company survived though many businesses surrounding it were crumbling. (1994). 

Brock had dedication and devotion, but the faith we are examining is of a different source.  We will be examining the faith Freud said people looked for as adults.  (Gross 1959)  Hebrews 11:1 tells us that “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Tyndale 1983).  The Bible is filled with countless stories of people of faith who trusted in God with every aspect of their life.  This faith has allowed several people to persevere through hard times and to stay optimistic about the future.  It is this definition of faith that is of interest to this study.

Results from a study on personal faith and religious state advocacy show a positive correlation between the two.  Yamane (1999) did research hypothesizing that legislators with a high sense of faith will tend to support religious groups more than others.  He created a survey with question about prayer, church attendance, and generosity to religious groups.  The connection between state legislatures showed the strongest connection among conservative religious groups.  Some other interesting findings were that 51.2% of legislators reported praying at least once per day and 88.8% reported placing some importance on religion in their own lives (Yamane 1999).

At the University of Texas, 112 undergraduates participated in a study to examine the connection between the spiritual and psychological connections to physical wellness.  Adams and Bezner (2000) distributed a survey which measured spirituality, sense of coherence and perceived wellness.  Results supported the connection and helped to lay groundwork between this connection of spirituality and psychology  (2000).

According to the results of a study at the University of Western Ontario (Gail & Hewitt 1994), students who belong to Christian faith groups are healthier and happier and handle stress better than students with no faith group affiliation.  A study on 299 college students was done.  They were separated into two distinct groups one in which students were part of a Christian club or faith group and the other group compiled of students in sociology classes.  A questionnaire was administered containing questions based on demographics, stress, mastery, self-esteem, psychological and physical health, use of health care resources, friendship patterns, beliefs and values, and religious practice.  Each of these items were measured for relevance (1994). 

This research opened the door for more studies and provided a starting point for subsequent research.  However, before moving to methodology and discussion, it is important for us to realize that even if a person believes in God there are various concepts or levels in which we view faith.  For Christians, the most familiar part of the Bible that shows us this faith is John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life” (Tyndale 1997).   After researching locus of control, optimism, self-esteem, and faith we can now begin to understand and make positive correlations among the four.


Each of these variables have been researched.  However, there is not a huge source of information including all three of these topics and their correlation to faith and each other.  In order to understand more of the psychological benefits of religion this study is very important to those with a religious orientation.  The researcher feels that theses three variables have a positive correlation to faith.  The researcher hypothesizes that people with a strong sense of faith will have higher optimism, external control, and self-esteem.

Operationally, there are nine hypotheses to be tested.  1)People who have a higher faith will have a higher optimism total (encompassing all optimistic responses on the survey).  2)Self-esteem totals (encompassing all self-esteem responses on the survey) will be higher for people who respond with a strong belief in God.  3)Locus of Control will be more external if a person has a very high score on question 28, “I see myself as a part of God’s world, rather than God a part of mine.”   4)Optimistic people will also have high self esteem.  5)A person with a high sense of faith will rank items of importance in question 37 with faith in one of the top three spots.   6)A person will have more of a commitment to church if they score higher on the total faith based section of the survey.   7.)How a person currently views their relationship with God will be positively correlated to how happy that person is.  8)Students will have a higher sense of faith than faculty.  9)Students from the Methodist college will have stronger faith overall than those at the community college. 




            Eighty-nine participants affiliated with one of two mid-western Illinois colleges were a part of this study (39 males, 50 females).  Fifty-four were from a private, Methodist affiliated school; nine were faculty members and 45 were students in three different introduction to psychology classes.  The other group of thirty-five were from a community college twenty miles from the other school. They were also enrolled in psychology classes within twenty miles of the other school.  The religious affiliations/denominations that the participants were a part of also varied.  There were 70 who indicated some type of Christian denomination, 17 who had no response, and two non-Christians.  The non-Christians were both from the community college.


            A two-page questionnaire was created as an instrument for gathering primary data (see Appendix A).  Through 38 questions, five major areas were covered: demographics, locus of control, optimism, self-esteem, and faith.  Demographic questions included gender, faculty/student, major/profession, and religious affiliation.  Each participant was asked five questions based on locus of control using the Likert Scale from 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 7 (Strongly Agree).  Participants were asked six questions based on Optimism and seven questions dealing with self-esteem (both were ranked with the Likert Scale).  Additionally, participants were asked eleven questions which dealt with belief in who God is, prayer, and one’s personal relationship to God.  Next they answered questions about individual lifestyle that is affected by faith.  They were asked to rank four questions using the Likert Scale of 1(Never) to 7(Always).  Participants were asked to rank the following seven items: happiness, health, success, friendships, money, family, and faith (1-most important, 7-least important).  The final two questions dealt with a person’s contentment and relationship with God at the current time.

            The individual questions about locus of control were added together for a composite locus of control score.  Optimism and self-esteem were also calculated to achieve a composite optimism score and a composite self-esteem score.  Fourteen of the faith questions were also added together for a composite faith score. 


            An edited copy of the Individual Interest Survey was pilot tested in the researcher’s Experimental Psychology class.  After suggestions had been made and corrections completed, three sets of surveys were distributed.  The surveys were color coded (white-Methodist college students, yellow-community college students, egg shell-faculty). 

            It was assumed that approximately fifty people would be in each group surveyed.  There were 45 people within the Methodist affiliated psychology classes and 35 people within the community college psychology classes.  All students in psychology classes participated in the study.  To survey faculty, a copy of the Individual Interest Survey was placed in each of the 65 professor’s mailboxes. 

Of the one-hundred and forty five surveys distributed, 89 were returned indicating a response rate of 61.38%.  The researcher then compiled the data from the questionnaires.  Using SPSS, t-tests and correlations were run.


Belief in God and Optimism

            A correlation was run to determine if higher faith totals were correlated to higher optimism totals.  The mean for faith totals (range: 15 low—105 high) for participants was 58.54.  The mean optimism total (range: 6 low ¾ 42 high) for participants was 30.625.  A positive correlation was found.  (p=.016, r=.182)

Self-esteem and Faith

            A frequency was calculated to determine the mean for the self-esteem and faith totals.  The mean for self-esteem totals was 38.4719 (7 low ¾ 49 high).  The faith totals had a mean of 58.5402 (15 low ¾ 105 high).  A correlation was run to analyze the relationship between self-esteem totals and faith total.  There was a positive correlation. (r=.182, p=.092).

External Locus of Control and God

            The average on the question:  “I see myself as a part of God’s world rather than God a part of my world” was 5.056(1 strongly disagree ¾7 strongly agree).  The average locus of control total was 26.4494(5 low—35 high).  A correlation was run to see the relationship between these two factors  (r=.087, p=.418).

Optimism and Self-esteem

            A correlation was run on the 7-item self-esteem total and the 6-item optimism total to see what the relation was.  There was a positive correlation with a significance level of .01. (p=.01, r=.638)

Faith Total and Importance of Faith

            A t-test was run to determine if actually ranking faith as one of the top three things in a person’s life was a significant factor in the participant’s indicated overall faith total.  The mean of the composite faith score for those who put faith in one of the top three spots was 66.2727(15 low—105 high).  The mean composite faith score for those who did not put faith in the top three was 52.3265  (See Figure 1).  After the t-test was run, a significance of p=.001 was discovered (t=.4.450).  In rankings of “faith,” 21 ranked it #1 and 24 ranked it #7 (figure 2 and 3 show the breakdown of rankings for 7).



Figure 1


Figure 2                                                                     

Figure 3

Percentages of #1 Ranked Items


























Church Commitment and Faith Total

            A correlation was conducted on the overall faith total to the response of “I attend church regularly.”  The mean for the faith total was 58.54, with a range from 15-105.  The mean for overall church attendance was 3.6292, on a range of 1-7.  There was a positive correlation. (p=.01, r=.679)

Current Relationship with God and Current Happiness

A correlation was conducted to determine the significance of one’s current relationship with God and their current happiness (questions 37 and 38 on the Individual Interest Survey).  The mean for a person’s current relationship with God was 4.2921 (1 low—7 high).  The mean for a person’s current happiness was 5.3258 (1 low—7 high).  A significance of .001 was found.  (r=.410)

Faith of students and faculty

            A t-test was conducted comparing students and faculty at the Methodist affiliated college on the overall faith total.  The mean for students was 60.71 and the mean for faculty was 55 (See Figure 4) (t=.-.718, p=.492). 

Figure 4


Faith at different colleges

            Another t-test was run comparing students from the Methodist affiliated college and the community college.  Results showed the mean for the students at the Methodist school to be 60.711.  The mean at the community college was 56.5 (See Figure 5) (t=1.262, p=.211). 



Figure 5


The first three hypotheses dealt with the individual factors and their relation to faith.  The first hypothesis stated that those who have a higher faith total will also have a higher optimism total.  The results showed their was a positive correlation with a significance of .016.  The researcher found two people who stated that they did not believe in God.  Others listed a denomination of Christianity, yet their score for church attendance was really low.  Self-esteem totals and faith totals had a correlation that was not significant.  The correlation between locus of control and God was not significant. 

            Another correlation was done to examine the significance between self-esteem totals and optimism totals.  The hypothesis was supported by a significance of .01.  The fifth hypothesis of faith totals and ranking of faith was also found to be supported at a significance level of .01.  This allows us to see that people who have a high sense of faith will value that more in their lives than others. 

            A t-test was run on the first three responses of the seven item ranking question.  This had a significant value of .001.  Of the numbers reported, 21 participants ranked faith as number 1 and 24 ranked it as number 7.  The other numbers also showed that faith was either very important or not at all important to participants. The top ranked priority in the participant’s life was family.  The lowest ranked priority in the participant’s life was money.

            Another significant value was found between the relationship of commitment to attend church and faith totals.  The original hypothesis stated that a person will have more of a commitment to attend church or campus ministries activities if they score higher on the total faith based section.  After administering surveys, the researcher realized that there is no campus ministries program at the community college and most faculty at the Methodist college do not attend campus ministries events.  However, a person’s participation in church should not be effected because of where they go to school.  Church and faith totals were tested to find a correlation.  A positive correlation was found showing that more people value going to church if they have a high sense of faith. 

            Another correlation was run to test the relationship between a person’s current relationship with God and their current happiness.  Results were in the direction of the hypothesis, but they were not significant.  A positive correlation of .001 was found.  This was an interesting finding in which more research might possibly be done in the future.

            The last two hypotheses dealt with the groups of people surveyed.  It was hypothesized that students would have a higher sense of faith than faculty members at the Methodist affiliated college.  After the t-tests were run no significance was found between faith of faculty and students.  The relationship was positive however resulting in a higher overall faith mean for students than faculty.  A t-test was also run of college students to examine the different faith levels between the Methodist and community college.  The p value was not significant, however the Methodist college students did have a higher mean than the community college students.  In both tests results might have been different with a larger sample size. 

            If this study were to be repeated, several aspects would need to be modified.  First, the sample size should be significantly increased.  The bigger the sample size, the more accurate the results.  By increasing the sample size, the demographics would also increase.  This would allow for a more even sample of students to faculty and religious to non-religious people. In this study, the researcher surveyed 89 people, 54 Methodist college students, 35 community college students, and 9 faculty.  The numbers in each group were far from even.  It would have been more accurate to have had an equal number of each.  It was really hard having only nine faculty to compare to fifty-four students. 

            Most of the questions seemed to make sense to the participants.  However, five of the responses to the seven-item ranking question had to be thrown out because they did not understand the directions.  Some respondents scored each of them on the 1 strongly agree—7 strongly disagree scale, instead of ranking their importance in a person’s life.  Future questions like this might require clearer directions.

            Because faith is such an important part of some people’s lives a more in depth studies could be conducted.  This research laid groundwork for a new approach to the relation between Faith and Personality characteristics.  The results showed positive correlations and some significance in hypotheses.         

This researcher gave a broad overview of the many hundreds of hypotheses that could be tested.  In the future it might be interesting to get samples based on a region’s religious affiliation.  It could be that the area affects a person’s faith as much as where they go to school.  Further research could be conducted in an area of high church attendance or faith commitment compared to an area with low measures of each.  It would be interesting to see how faith has helped people deal with life crises such as death of a loved one, change in career, health problems, or financial difficulties. 


Adams, T. & Bezner, J.  (2000).  Conceptualization and Measurement of the Spiritual and psychological dimensions of wellness in a college population.  Journal of American College Health, 165-174.

Aspinwall, L. & Taylor, S.  (1992).  Modeling cognitive adaptation: A longitudinal investigation of the impact of individuals.  Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 989-1004. 

Allport, G.  (1960). The Individual and His Religion,139-161. New York, NY:  Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.

            Brock.  (1994).  Brock Founded on Faith, Optimism, and Hard Work.  Candy Industry, 72-72.

            Bee, H. (2000).  The Journey of Adulthood, 119-124.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cloninger, S. (2000).  Theories of Personality: Understanding Persons, 3, 167-175.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Frankel, B. & Hewitt W.E.  (1994).  Religion and Well-being among Canadian University students:  The Role of Faith Groups on Campus.  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 62-74.

Gross, L.  (1959).  God and Freud, 11-23.  New York, NY: David McKay Company, Inc. 

Leatherwood, D.  (1999).  The Impact of Early Parental Interaction on Perceptions of God.  (Thesis for Experimental Psychology, McKendree College).

Kelley, T.M.  (2000).  Thought Recognition, Locus of Control, and Adolescent Well-being.  Adolescence, 531-551.

Life Application Study Bible.  (1997).  Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Maslow, A. (1970).  Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences, 3-18.  New York, NY: The Viking Press. 

            Pransky, G. (1997). The renaissance of psychology. New York: Sulzburger and Graham Publishing.

            Stephens, L.  (1996).  Building a Foundation for Your Child’s Faith, 20-25. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

            Thoits, P.A. (1995).  Stress, coping, and social support processes:  Where are we?  What next?  Journal of Health & Social Behavior, 53-79.

            Yamane, D.  (1999).  Faith and Access: Personal religiosity and religious group advocacy in a state legislature.  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 543-551.