The Origin of Personality through a Religious Lens

As I’ve been taking this Psychology of Personality class, something that’s come up multiple times is what the origins of some of these different personality traits are. In other words, why is it that some people are extroverts and others are empathetic and others are neurotic? We’ve discussed a number of different causes, from the effects of upbringing, to the environment you were raised in, to genetic factors. Another item that’s come up multiple times is to trace the roots of those personality types back to evolution.

All of this has got me thinking (as usual). I can see the effects of all of these different factors at work, or at least understand the arguments behind them. At the same time, I’m not honestly sure what I think about all of it, and a big part of this is actually rooted in religion.

One of the basic tenets of Latter-day Saint belief is that each of us existed before we came to earth. We were individuals with our own strengths and weaknesses and opinions and personalities. So how does that line up with the different personality studies I’ve been learning about?

At first, I wasn’t so sure. If all of our personalities are based on our upbringing, environment, genetics, and the like, did that leave any room for a pre-existence? But then I realized that of course it did. I blogged last week about how personalities can change over time. We can and do become different based on any number of factors. So wouldn’t it also be possible to be born with a certain “spiritual personality,” which is then affected by environment, genetics, upbringing, and the like? Makes sense to me.

Another sticking point that’s come up for me again this semester is “so what?” At times it feels like any number of things can just be chalked up to factors outside our control. If we believe in free agency (that we’re here to act for ourselves, and not just to be acted upon), doesn’t attributing so many things to things outside of our control essentially negate that? Can’t I just blame anything that I do that I don’t like on something that wasn’t up to me? “I would be a nicer person, but I wasn’t raised that way.” It felt like a baked in excuse for anything.

But again, as I thought on it some more, it actually ended up making sense once again. We’d like to think that everything that we do that is good is due to something special we did. That we’re smart because we study, or gifted at writing because we practice. That we’re empathetic because we’re just really nice people. On the other hand, anything that’s not-so-good is something we’d rather attribute to something outside of our control. I like to eat brownies by the metric ton because my hunter-gatherer ancestors were all about the calories. It’s not my fault. I’m just wired that way.

In reality, I think it’s somewhere in the middle (as it always seems to be). Some of what I do, both good and bad, is due to any number of external factors. How and where I was raised. My genes. The places I’ve lived and experiences I’ve had. But if you put someone else in the same exact situation as me, I still think they’d end up making different choices. Yes, some of that thought is rooted in my religious beliefs, but some is also rooted in just what I’ve seen in the world around me.

Personally, I think it’s important to keep both angles in mind at all times. Maybe be more forgiving about the shortfalls of people around you. You don’t know what sort of issues and backgrounds they’re dealing with. And be forgiving of yourself, as well. At the same time, don’t try to absolve yourself of the need to change by passing everything off as out of your control, and don’t let other people off the hook in the same way. As I write that, those two concepts seem at odds with each other. Like, you can’t do both at the same time. I think you actually can, but there’s a balance to it that’s tricky to find.

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