Musings on the Integration of Psychology and Theology: Part 3, Social and Personality Psychology

From time to time people describe my research as "fresh" or "creative." I have, for example, published on things like profanity, gossip, humor usage, beliefs about the devil, Christian bookstore art, and whether or not Christians think Jesus ever had diarrhea. The topics I've waded into here on the blog are just as diverse. But on the whole there isn't a whole lot of research out there being done by Christian psychologists on topics like these.

Why is that? Here's my best explanation.

Most of the research being done out there is being done by Christian psychologists who are training, or who are themselves, mental health professionals--clinical or counseling psychologists. For example, if you want to get a graduate degree in a program that integrates psychology and Christianity you're going to go to a program that offers a M.S., PhD or PsyD in counseling or clinical psychology. And given that focus, the research from those graduate programs, where a great deal of the published literature comes from, is going to focus mainly on issues related to mental health and counseling.

This has a homogenizing effect on the research literature. The research topics tend to cluster around issues related to psychological or spiritual well-being. To be sure, the recent interest in positive psychology has freshened up this focus, new variables (the virtues) are being introduced, but the focus remains on well-being and how best to foster it.

The point being, if your focus in on well-being research investigating, say, profanity or art or if Jesus ever had a stomach bug, can seem pretty weird, off-topic and irrelevant. These topics aren't the subject matter of clinical and counseling psychology, where most of the integrative work in the field is being done.

So where do these topics come from? They come from personality and social psychology. These are the branches of psychology that get into, as I describe it to my students, "the stuff of everyday life." Most of my research, and most of what I write about here, is from social and personality psychology. Introversion in the church? Personality psychology. Profanity use? Social psychology. Disgust psychology and the practices of social exclusion? Social psychology. Why Christian bookstore art is so bad? Social psychology. And so on.

In short, the reason my research seems "fresh" or "creative" isn't because I'm particularly smart. It's because of something pretty mundane: I'm pulling my research questions from social and personality psychology rather than from clinical and counseling psychology.

And here's what I've found in all this. Social and personality psychology is filled with topics rich in theological implications. For example, how can you talk about the principalities and powers and not talk about the Milgram obedience study? How can you talk about Jesus' ethical vision without talking about group psychology, aggression, and altruism?

All that to say, the literature in Christian psychology, insofar as it is focused on well-being and therapy, has been pretty picked over, creating the "same old, same old" feeling a lot of us have when we read the empirical literature.

But the integrative literature in personality and social psychology is pretty thin, which should make a young researcher's eyes open wide. Because that's what you want as a researcher: a horizon of uninvestigated research questions, all sitting there ripe for the picking.

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10 thoughts on “Musings on the Integration of Psychology and Theology: Part 3, Social and Personality Psychology ”

  1. Sounds like a ripe call for qualified interested Ph.D. candidates? Or is it a nudge to fellow already credentialed researchers to fertile fields?

  2. Both, I'd say. Mainly it's a call for anyone doing integrative work to look more toward social and personality psychology for interesting and important research questions.

  3. I'm unaware of there being "schools" of social and personality psychology. It's an area of research that doesn't have schools like you'd see with psychotherapeutic schools/orientations.

    As for jumping into this area I'd simply recommend surfing the abstracts of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. An hour surfing JPSP abstracts would provide you with tons of places to explore the intersection of psychology and theology. If one doesn't have access to JPSP abstracts through something like PSYCInfo or PSYCArticles then I'd start with a social or personality psychology textbook.

  4. For what it's worth, your work has done more for me (in a therapeutic sense) than any other theology-psychology integration. Not more perhaps than secular psychology, but it's still been very important, in particular your description of Winter Christians and Quest Theology.

  5. Hey! I'd love to talk to you about this more--looking into grad school options for studying Christian discourse in cult-like groups and a lot of the social psychology factors into this. Where can I email you about this?

  6. Thanks. Quest was the first thing that pulled me into the psychology of religion area.

  7. I'd like to push back on this post a bit, if I could. It sounds to me (wink, wink) like it was written by an experimental psychologist. As someone who lives with and hangs out with a gaggle of (secular) clinical psychology graduate students, I think it's a bit unfair to characterize their research as "not fresh" or "not creative", or even "picked over". There are some people who are out there who are doing some really interesting and captivating (and even integrative) research in clinical psychology.

    I think it would be more fair to say (and you point in this direction) that clinical and counseling psychology research have a different (and to you, and actually to me, less interesting) goal or telos than experimental psychology research.

    If I could make an analogy, experimental psychology is more "pure" science, whereas clinical and counseling psychology is more "applied". It's similar to the difference between physics ("I'm going to use this different isotope of argon to make a cool new laser beam!") and engineering ("I'm going to use this cool new laser beam and a bunch of other stuff to shoot down a cruise missile!") In the same way, you as an experimental psychologist are primarily interested in questions of "What and how (and in what ways) do people think, and why do they think that way?" whereas clinical and counseling folks are interested in taking those results and developing therapeutic results with them. To use an example from your own work, a clinical psychologist might want to ask the question "What does experimental/social literature tell me about how the psychology of disgust works, and how can I apply that to my patient who feels disgust and revulsion over her past because of the faith community she is a part of?" Generalizing that question out would be interesting research, and it would be clinical research, but it would still be, to your criteria, focused on well being.

    Obviously there is a lot of overlap on both sides of the "pure" and "applied" scale, but it seemed to me that your characterization of clinical research was a bit narrow. Of course, I'm not familiar with clinical research at more Christian oriented programs, so perhaps I am being a bit generous :).

  8. I was actually doing research on the powers and principalities several years back when I ran across a series of lectures you did at Summit where you talked about Milgram. I've been interested in the integration of psychology and theology ever since. Thanks for that.

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