The Invisible Jesus in Psychology

Universities in the “Show-Me” state of Missouri seem to like studying blogs and the characters of those who write them.  Last year, the Missouri State University in Springfield asked me to participate in a student study on media ethics and the “Wild West” of the internet. Yesterday, Tal Yakoni and Dr. Simine Vazire of the Washington University in St. Louis sent me an email soliciting my participation in a personality test to help them study the link between a writer’s personality and the “content and style” of their writing.

I had my choice between a 10 minute, 100 question test or a longer 300 question version.  I’m impatient, so I chose the option that took the least amount of effort.  I’m pretty sure that psychology would give me a demerit for that, since its a subjective science that seems to use Jesus as a role model — and we all know that Jesus wasn’t a slacker.

As a school of thought psychology, like Jesus’s Christianity, seems to value a sense of altruism and sacrifice in its adherents.  It advances a pseudo-religious creed of love for all mankind, unselfishness, and an unbridled spirit of empathy and compassion.  It wants disciples who will strive to maintain a happy, positive attitude no matter how wretched or difficult a situation might be.

But are the ideals and expectations of psychology rational?  Do the terms and labels employed by psychology work toward better understanding and social enlightenment, or are they simply a convenient way to exclude in some way those who don’t fit the mold?

One of the agree/disagree statements on the personality test was:  “You have a good word for everybody”.  This is a question meant to measure one’s level of “agreeableness” — the value an individual places on getting along with other people.  The higher your score, the more “considerate, friendly, compassionate, generous, helpful, and willing to compromise” you are considered to be.  In other words, you’re that much closer to Jesus.

The problem with the “good word” question is that it’s illogical. Jesus might say there’s no such thing as an illogical question, but how rational was a man who believed he could walk on water and rise from the dead?  Jesus today would have been locked up or put on some heavy doses of anti-psychotic medication yet the school of psychology, perhaps unwittingly, relies on a role model very similar to Jesus to inform its beliefs on what constitutes the most positive and desirable individual traits.

As a rational person, I don’t have a good word to say about murderers, child abusers, rapists, suicide bombers, white collar thieves, war mongers, wife beaters, and baby slayers.  Jesus might have felt a calling to dig into the dark souls of the wretched and pluck out a ray of light — but I don’t see the point.  While it pays to understand the why and how of society’s predators so that we can work on prevention, I feel no particular compassion, empathy, or mercy towards the who that committed the crime.  A person who can rape a child, beat a woman to death, kill dozens in a bombing — or who revels in the high life after stealing millions of dollars from others — does not, in my opinion, merit empathy, but disdain.

Another unqualified test statement was “You like to make people happy”.  I know there are some people who might rejoice (such as neoconservatives and child abusers) if I never wrote another word, but I don’t really care about their happiness.  I’m also sure it thrills my neighbor when I clean up his dog’s shit from the communal lawn, but I don’t do it to make him happy. I do it because I have a dog and don’t want the condo association to change its pet-friendly policies.

Jesus would probably clean up after the lazy neighbor as a good deed.  Jesus liked to do good deeds even if they weren’t rewarded — but of course they usually were.  In fabled stories, the wicked would see Jesus’s good example,  have an epiphany, and fall to their knees in gratitude.

In real life, I resent picking up basketball-sized mounds of German Shepherd shit, and the only epiphany my negligent neighbor seems to have had, despite letters and conversations, is that someone else will eventually take care of the mess.  I don’t delight in Sunday mornings hunched over piles of dog poop with rubber gloves, but I might feel quite differently if my neighbor was incapacitated or actually needed my help.

Like most people, I also enjoy making those I love, admire, or otherwise value happy.  There’s gratification in giving to friends and family members, as well as to those whom I see as deserving but less fortunate. So do I like to make people happy? It depends on who they are and whether or not their happiness is important to me.

The test asked if I agreed or disagreed with the statement: “I am not interested in abstract ideas”.  Again, it depends. I met a philosophy student once who insisted that a Pepsi can only existed because I thought it did. He did not believe that material reality could exist outside of one’s own beliefs.  I wasn’t interested in his abstract (nonsensical) theory at all.  Carl Sagan, though, has put out some abstract theories that are fascinating — and so did Jesus — which is what I believe is at the root of psychology’s odd mix of mysticism and studied rationales.

The “think positive” movement is a prime example of mixing magical thinking with academic study.  “Think it and be it” and other reality-defiers are buoyed by massive studies that lead to such sterling conclusions as “happy people are happier”.

The feeling of happiness, despite the reality of circumstances, (think Job, think Jesus on the cross) has, in tides and trends, been sold like a mandate to the masses, and this mandate has diluted even our language — there are no obstacles, only challenges.  We don’t have problems, but issues.  We don’t have realities, but perceptions What would Jesus do?

Jesus likely wouldn’t have invented electricity, the telephone, the automobile, or the  MacBook Pro that I covet.  While I disagree with much of the criteria that psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton used to define genius in his recent book,  I agree with his general conclusion that geniuses tend to be “open to experience, introverted, (and) hostile. . .”.  In other words, not very Jesus-like at all.

What label, besides “hostile”, does psychology put on those who are emotionally reactive and therefore more likely to experience “negative” feelings such as anger and frustration?  Psychology calls them neurotic.  The old testament God would have scored very high in this category but the softer, gentler Jesus would have scored low.  According to psychology, the mythical God, creator of the world — the one who was emotionally reactive, moody, and easily irritated –  would have a diminished ability to “think clearly, make decisions, and cope effectively with stress”.  Jesus, by contrast, would be “calm and emotionally stable”.

If Simonton’s personality theory of genius is to be believed, then shouldn’t we be concerned with how much potential is being thwarted in classrooms when non-conforming smart children, who are easily bored and irritated, are taught a curriculum that’s geared towards the average and not the exceptional?  What about adults with above-average intelligence who find themselves frustrated by slow thinkers, outdated methods, and irrational beliefs?

The Jesus-model of psychology would have everyone believe that they are special and unique — but no more special or unique than anyone else –  which really gives “special” a whole new meaning, one that’ s not quite sameness, but more like same worth.  To feel that you may have more intrinsic or social worth than someone else, (no matter how base, unethical, or irrational that someone might be),  is considered by psychology to be arrogant, narcissistic, grandiose –  even delusional.  It’s just not very Jesus-like.

Jesus died on the cross for the sins of others, and didn’t whine enough about it to be considered a martyr or someone suffering from persecution complex, therefore it stands to (psychology’s) reason that people should be selfless enough to see the positives in their own adverse circumstances.  It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you feel about it.  You choose your own feelings.  No one else and no other circumstance can dictate the way you feel — it’s a choice — so think positive.

Try to keep that in mind the next time someone slams your finger in a car door or empties your retirement account. What would Jesus do? He’d forgive, of course, and then find a way to make it a positive, life-affirming experience because, after all, happy people are happier. And happier people are just a whole lot more fun to be around than those who are always questioning reason and authority and letting themselves be bugged by facts or circumstances that are not in their milieu or immediate power to change.

Yet no change occurs in a vacuum, and every grassroots social cause begins with disgruntlement or unhappiness over a certain situation — whether or not it is our own, or even on shared soil.  Positive changes, in other words, often stem from “negative” feelings and thoughts.  While joy is certainly a preferred feeling for its euphoric qualities, this doesn’t lessen the validity or rationality of other emotions, such as frustration, anger, or sadness.  That some people might feel these “negative” emotions more often than others might not indicate neuroses, but a heightened sense of awareness of the world outside their own front door.

Another flaw in personality tests is that questions are often asked in slightly different ways in order to measure truthfulness, but for many people, including myself, a change in wording is a change in meaning. “Do you feel that you have had more bad experiences than most other people” is, to me,  a totally different question than “Do you feel that you are cursed”.  One may be an arguable fact, while the other indicates a belief in the mystical concepts of blessings and curses.

The storied Jesus, while hanging on a cross, went through a range of emotions, at first blaming his father for forsaking him, then believing that he was being tortured so that others could be forgiven. I believe Jesus’s MMPI scores would have fluctuated dramatically given the day. In the end, though, it’s the feel-good story of Jesus — as a simple, self-sacrificing, loving, humble, calm, altruistic forgiver of all wrongs — that seems to inform psychology’s definition of social harmony and mental health.  There is no doubt that many people, particularly the religious, find this not only acceptable but somehow perfect.  After all, who wouldn’t want to be more like Jesus?

There’s a disparity between Jesus and mere mortals, though, that many seem to forget.  Jesus could turn water into wine, heal the sick, stop a storm, and drive the evil spirits out of the wicked and possessed.  Is it any wonder he was such a calm, affable guy?  I know I’d be much less stressed out if I was capable of pulling off a miracle or forty-seven.  I’d definitely be a lot more agreeable.

If psychiatry is to psychology what science is to art, (and I believe there’s truth in that), but both rely on the Jesus model to some degree, then both would seem to be less rational, less tolerant of difference, more bent on conformity, and ultimately much more limiting to the advancement of humanity, than they make themselves out to be.

How many employers are now using personality tests to decide who gets a job and who doesn’t?  How many “introverted” people or “hostile” geniuses are being excluded from consideration due to these supposedly undesirable traits? In schools, how many extraordinarily bright but “easily frustrated” children are being labeled with ADD or personality disorders?   How many potential “beautiful minds” have we lost by insisting that they are not socially harmonious or agreeable enough for our schools, our workplaces, our institutions?

How many potential  Galileos and Van Goghs would the modern day world of psychology have us abandon to the mythical, invisible role model of Jesus?

Footnote: The results of the personality test I took determined that I am more neurotic than 63.3% of you, more open to experience than 82.3%, and more extraverted than 63.6% of you. However, 82.7% of you are more conscientious, and 74.3% of you are more agreeable. Which makes most of you much more Jesus-like than me. I’m also an INTP according to Meyers-Briggs, a confirmed caffeine addict, and neurotic enough to believe that most of you won’t have had the interest or patience to read this entire essay.
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  1. Ah, Interweb psychology. Having a Good Word for Everybody and Making Other People Happy sound like codependence, not Christlike behavior if you ask me…what about when Jesus kicked the asses of the moneychangers in the temple? what about the values Honesty and Integrity which put Doing the Right Thing and Speaking the Truth above Making People Happy? And Positive Psychology is, for the most part, capitalist, consumerist bullshit that says if your life sucks (dead-end job of soulless corporate prostitution, enslavement to ever more consumption and brand loyalty), you should just look on the bright side, maybe chant a mantra or two about being Worth the Best or some such crap, rather than take action to change your shitty life.

  2. Interesting essay. The whole “think positive” movement baffles me. It is not magic. Worse yet, it invalidates a whole range of human experience and human emotion as destructive. Furthermore, it makes people become complacent for what is going on in the world, and accept that as reality, or makes them believe that faith and positive thinking alone will fix the situation. What we need is not to have people to conform to the positive thinking psychology. We need the outrage, we need the anger, we need annoyance, and we need people to ask the hard questions, and then to turn that into positive change. We need psychology to focus on this. Otherwise, it is all just smoke and mirrors.

  3. Interesting, and yes I read the whole thing my cynical friend, but can’t say I agree with much of it. Personally I’m rather fond of the Jesus character and believe that Faith is integral to my life.
    As for personality tests and other forms of testing, they are helpful “tools” that provide some kind of insight. As a medical professional, these tools are invaluable in many instances.
    No Black, No White, so each to his own.

  4. My daughter could answer this better than I can because in May she will complete her doctorate in Psychometrics. She would explain that all tests are flawed and the type of test you took Jane already has an objective. If you want to prove Jesus exists you ask if you feel better after you pray. If you want to prove he doesn’t than ask do you ever get answers to your prayers. This is why multiple choice questions are so wrong when administered to kids, but if a child isn’t really able to express themselves in words essay questions will not reflect what a child knows either. There is no perfect test but I can say with certainty that if you took a test for SEMO all the religeous people would score higher. That place is pert of the bible belt that sweeps across the South and into Oklahoma. It is the part that the New Madrid fault could detach and float away from the rest of us if only it would.

  5. I think that there I times I prefer Jesus’ dad. There was one angry vengeful guy with some really creative punishments,. I mean a pillar of salt? who knew?

    Seriously I also resent the co-opting of kindly gestures by the Jesussy crowd, don’t get me wrong, I have some people who are devout Christians in my life and I adore them for their quiet but heartfelt beliefs plus the amount of crap they take from all the people who find it amusing to bash all forms of Christianity with their cynical belief that NO smart people are Christians. Not that I am saying that is what is in this essay, sorry kind of rambly today. What I am saying is that I find that too many of the evangelical type are far to quick to say that “nice” behavior” or kindness to others is a Christian thing, if you follow me, like other religions wouldn’t or couldn’t have a service to others component or that sometimes being kind is, in fact, just part of the human condition. I don’t think that my entire moral and ethical code was built in a church. I think when my mom told me to share my toys and that clonking my sister in the head with a toy truck was bad, she didn’t frame that in the name of Jesus. Some people are naturally nice a high percentage of the time and some people aren’t and I can’t say that I have noticed that the percentage is any different in any given religion.

    I do agree with you , Jane about the meanings of these personality test questions, I often have read them and despaired of finding a way to explain what I am thinking via a multiple choice answer or a scale of one to 10 disagree to agree. I am reminded of a tale…I don’t remember where I saw it or heard it, probably some TV show about a child being examined for mental illness who is asked if hears voices telling him what to do in his head. The boy unequivocally answers yes. Much hub-bub until someone has the sense to ask the boy to explain at which point he explains that his conscience that tells him right from wrong is a voice in his head. He knew that it was his construct of his moral code, people don’t fit into bubble tests or scales of 1-10 and I worry about our society a lot at times as I think sometimes people are trying to get everyone to be “standard”

  6. Lots of interesting points here Jane.I was given a lengthy “personality” test once as part of the job interview process. The job was in a skilled nursing facility – with questions like “Do you enjoy working with the elderly?” Absolutely. What was the test measuring? How much I’d lie to get the job? Coincidentally the administrator was Christian and the company was supposedly run on Christian principles, but it really was just a business like any other – out to make money. When you asked the admin how he was he’d always answer “I’m having the time of my life, how about you?” How do you even respond to that kind of phony enthusiasm? I think I usually mumbled “that’s nice.” I think tests can be used to label non-conformists as trouble makers and they do seem to reflect traditional Christian values.
    I love what AP Newton said above – positive psychology is, for the most part,just capitalist consumerist bullshit. It’s definitely selling a lot of books and magazines.

  7. A.P. – Thank you. I’ve often written about the bloat of positive thinking in the workplace. At one place I worked it was so bad that my boss perceived every employee suggestion as a negative.

    Corina – Couldn’t have said it better. Exactly.

    Doris – I have nothing against Jesus, faith, Christians, etc. I just don’t believe that the model is appropriate in any objective science. The personality tests may helpful to an extent, but no more helpful than questions asked face to face. And they are being used by employers and others in ways I think are discriminatory and wrong-minded. I also think that because psychology is a field that has a social effect, it should strive to be more rational when archetyping or categorizing people.

    Ann – Yes, and some of the questions are intentionally vague. No perfect test, I agree, but it’s disturbing that so many employers and other places are using these.

    Kate – I see the glass as half pull when I pour it, and half-empty when I’m drinking it.

    Mary – I took a personality test for Caribou coffee. Some of the questions were “Are you a people pleaser”, “do you get along with others”, “do you like to be alone more often than others”. I was not considered for the job after the test.

  8. The test could also ask…..are you an axe murderer? If you say no how do they klnow you are telling the truth? I mean…who would admit it?

  9. Jane… I haven’t even finished reading your post yet and just had to say two things… why don’t you take all that neighbors dog shit and either 1) put it on his doorstep or 2) on top of his car? Eventually he would get the message. Unless he wanted his poop brought to him perhaps he should pick it up. You are way nicer than I would be.

  10. I work for a company that gives personality tests to prospective employees–as far as i can tell, these tests are utter bullshit. Kind of like the SATs or the tests that tell you what kind of dog you would be.

  11. Ok I finished it and have to say… I have a MA in psychology and I actually have always had a difficult time finding value in testing. I also really had a tough time with being told over and over again by clinical supervisors that I needed to choose a theory and apply it to all of my counseling with people. To me counseling is much more organic and dependent upon the person not a theory.

  12. Scientology relies on the MMPI to lure people to their *cough* church. anyone walking down Hollywood Blvd will tell you how they stand on the sidewalk like sideshow barkers…come in, sit down, let us tell you how flawed you are and how we can rid you of those pesky thetans.

    this is what we used to say about those tests in the halls of the psych ward i once worked. garbage in, garbage out.

    i couldn’t settle on any of the questions because, like you my friend, i challenged them all. ;)

  13. Oh, where to start….

    Well, I’m a born-again Catholic and I have to say the thought of modeling my behavior after Jesus never occurred to me. He is God, after all and I’m not sure we’re supposed to be like GOD. I’ve been following the Apostle Paul all these years and he was always scolding and correcting the wayward believers :-)

    Anyway, the genius thing cracked me up, because even though I’m no genius, I am introverted and hostile. And I’m not really open to new experiences considering that I’m kind of agoraphobic. I do all my shopping online or make someone else in the family do it (what are husbands and kids for, anyway?).

    I obviously don’t fit the Jesus psychological model because over the years, I have experienced the following:

    1. I was given a Wolverine t-shirt by a boyfriend.
    2. You’re pregnant?!! You? Why?!!
    3. You know you can’t go through life with that personality and get anywhere.
    4. (Person looking at pictures on my desk at work) You have kids?!! You just don’t seem like the Mom type. I mean, YOU know how you are.

    I’m pretty sure God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit all know who I am down here and have given me a wide berth considering my upbringing and life circumstances.

    And I’m just fine with that.

  14. Jane, I’ve had to read and re-read this article because it challenged so many of my assumptions……and even some of my personal beliefs. But after digesting your words carefully, I think I understand, and may even agree with you.

    I believe and act on my religious beliefs……and I think that when the good lessons from religion are taken, such as the golden rule, then that is an admirable thing to model. I also find traits like humility and generosity to the poor admirable, and while those beliefs come from Christianity, I don’t consider them Christian alone.

    What you’re saying though, and what I think I finally get, is that there are very good people, including some very bright ones, that are given negative labels by psychology, or not hired for jobs based on psych tests, because of a belief system or set of ideas that vary from what may be a religious ideal but perhaps not a more secular one…..and that this does not always make the person neurotic or disagreeable, but maybe even more aware, or more likely to question.

    Phew……seriously, you challenge me. And I keep coming back because I love it. I take something new away from almost every piece you write every time I read it……and YES I read the whole thing!

  15. Hmmm. Much to think about here. More than can be addressed immediately, but a few off the cuff comments:
    1) I hate personality tests too. Seems the smarter you are, the harder it is to answer their supposedly “simple” questions. Especially if you’re a writer and words and shades of meaning are your life.
    2) Jesus hardly has a monopoly on the values and behaviors you described. Seems many other religious figures preach much the same thing. And while modern Christianity may often position him as Dr. Love or the Great Judge, in his own time, he was nothing less than a radical, a rabble rouser. That Jesus wasn’t “sweet” “cooperative,” or “positive” at all.
    3) I also think there is a difference between individual psychology and social psychology, a healthy individual doesn’t have to be like everyone else, but a healthy society needs to share core values. How much deviation from the norm can a given model tolerate before society as a whole is harmed? That’s the part of sociology that I found fascinating.
    4) I agree that a lot of “do good” behavior isn’t altruistic, it is self-serving, and the currency for gaining acceptance and stature in a community. I don’t think that diminishes the value of the good deeds, it just keeps me from thinking every over-commited volunteer is a saint.
    5) I don’t think every social cause grows out of disgruntlement or happiness with a situation. Many grow out of compassion and care for fellow human beings (which may or may not be coupled with outrage). Some causes are birthed because a group of individuals want to feel useful.
    6) The bit on specialness? Loved that.

    And that’s all for now, though I know I’m going to re-read this post and be turning your ideas around for quite some time.

  16. Julia,
    The supervisor you describe could have been one I worked with–the one who ultimately convinced me I didn’t want to finish that MFCC. After a session with a man who repeatedly molested his children and talked about it openly, I wanted to turn the SOB over to the law. My supervisor stressed “professionalism” and “practitioner/patient privelege.” My response, “What about those kids?” His, “They aren’t your clients.” Finished the term, never went back.

  17. Whoa Kate! Never would I have been able to NOT report him, but here in CA child abuse trumps client confidentiality so it wouldn’t have been an issue of whether or not to report. I totally get why you stopped working on your MFCC. I think about going back and working on my hours again but I just don’t think it’s really the profession for me. I worked with a few court ordered men and I felt like it was sucking the life force out of me not to just tell them, that they were assholes and lucky they weren’t spending the rest of their lives in jail. Not exactly a therapeutic perspective. :) There are plenty of therapists out there that are good at working with abusers. I just don’t think I’ll ever be able to be one.

  18. God this makes me laugh!

    Having been a psych major in college, I was subject to many personality tests and was prompted by your article to go back and re-take my favorite: the Machiavelli Personality Test aka the MACH-IV.

    I was then, and am now, a “High Mach” which I will delineate here just because I find it funny and think you will as well . . .

    “High Machs constitute a distinct type: charming, confident and glib, but also arrogant, calculating and cynical, prone to manipulate and exploit. (Think Rupert Murdoch, or if your politics permit it, President Clinton.)

    True low Machs, however, can be kind of dependent, submissive and socially inept. So be sure to invite a high Mach or two to your next dinner party.

    Jane, honey, I’ll have a high Mach dinner party with you any time!!!

  19. Life is so many shades of gray. grey. greige.
    We try so hard to make sense of the muck. The more we examine the things we think are black, or are white, the more we realize they contain aspects of the other. The yin yang symbol – each swirl contains a bit of it’s opposing color.

    Sometimes I think of the world as glen plaid. Black and white woven together in a feisty arrangement, yet the overall effect is grayish. sometimes with little bits of color when you stare at it long enough.

  20. I had the interest and the patience to read the entire essay, once I found the time… this morning.

    Total bullshit that you can choose your feelings.

    “But are the ideals and expectations of psychology rational? Do the terms and labels employed by psychology work toward better understanding and social enlightenment, or are they simply a convenient way to exclude in some way those who don’t fit the mold?”

    No to the first question. Yes to the second.

    I took Meyers-Briggs nearly 20 years ago and was an ENFP. It’s been a while but I remember my scores were close to the center – made me feel like Sybil trying to answer the questions.

    I loved this essay.

  21. I read the entire essay. Of course, if 5 therapists and 20 years of psychotherapy is any judge, I’m not entirely sane and absolutely not ‘normal’ by any stretch.

    In my experience things like “you can choose your own feelings” and “think positive” hail from Scientology, E.S.T., and the Landmark Forum (and their ilk). Not psychotherapy. Maybe it depends on who you ask.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your essay.

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