E20. Ralph Piedmont – The Psychological Soul of Spirituality

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My guest today is Professor Ralph Piedmont, Managing Director for the Center for Professional Studies, former Professor of Pastoral Counselling at Loyola University in Maryland, USA, and past president of the APA’s Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Ralph co-authored (with Teresa Wilkins) the recently published, Understanding the Psychological Soul of Spirituality.

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After a postdoctoral fellowship under two of the giants of personality psychology, Paul Costa and Robert McCrae, Ralph’s work has primarily focused on the five-factor model (FFM) of personality and studying spirituality using the methods of personality psychology.

In this conversation, we discuss the nature of spirituality as a personality trait (arguably the sixth personality trait!) that cuts across cultures and religions, it’s relevance for clinical practice and wellbeing and the nature of the FFM domain of openness to experience and its maladaptive expressions.

Show Notes

1:45 – Ralph’s background

3:45 – What is the numinous? And why is personality a good approach to it?

14:40 – What to make of the fact the people have the capacity for religious experiences.

19:50 – On Ralphs work on Experiential Permeability, which explores the maladaptive expressions of Openness to Experience.

29:50 – The relationship of openness and numinosity to schizotypy and schizophrenia.

42:10 – What is the role of spirituality in clinical practice?

1:45 – Ralph’s background

3:45 – What is the numinous? And why is personality a good approach to it?

Ralph works at a university that incorporated spirituality as a component of therapeutic programs intended to support positive transformation in clients.  Religion and spirituality are complex and meaningful and they come with a lot of baggage. Almost every human society has placed religious experience and practice at its center.  For modern tastes, religions all too often lack inclusivity. Yet the essence of these warring factions is a shared one.

For Ralph, the numinous is a psychological characteristic of spiritual experience, comprising a feeling of awe and amazement to the beneficence of some larger reality. We can see this is the almost universal way that the grand canyon or the night sky elicits awe. People recognise how small they are in relation to the larger powers of nature and life, and that we are all connected in some process and pattern as it grows and unfolds over time. And that becomes our spiritual sense.

With the numinous, we come to think about ourselves through time and come to see ourselves as one step in a larger process that goes well beyond our lifetime. As people start to see themselves this perspective, they start to grow in resilience, purpose, direction and equanimity. The loss of this sense, where we don’t have that sense of transcendence, and we become so focused on us, on the here and now, can result in a tragic sense of existential crisis that can be difficult and dangerous. This factor is a predictor of psychopathology above neuroticism.

Spirituality provides for three major fears. First – is death the end. Second, is life chaos or is there a meaning and purpose built in to life. Finally, the issue of am I good enough.  Our response to these things comprise what Ralph calls numinous motivations. These are infinitude (helping us to live a life of meaning and value even though we are going die), meaning, and worthiness (am I a good person in the world or am I being .

14:40 – What to make of the fact the people have the capacity for religious experiences. As a solution to those numinous needs, a spirituality could develop without our capacity for dramatic spiritual experience.

Ralph stresses that the numinous is a psychological sensibility, but their culture will determine how that motivation becomes actualised in their behaviour. Ralph thinks about mystical experiences in terms of changes in our view about who we are. For example, when having ones first child and beginning parenthood, which often induces a sense of infinitude.

Ralph considers this as a uniquely human experience. As is schizophrenia which Ralph considers schizophrenia as a breakdown in people’s capacity to make meaning for themselves and to understand them as themselves. The numinous is the opposite end of the meaning spectrum and involves make elaborate connections that extend throughout time.

19:50 – On Ralphs work on Experiential Permeability, which explores the maladaptive expressions of Openness to Experience.

Openness to experience is an interesting personality trait. It is the trait that seems to be the most recent to be expressed by language, with the words that describe the train developing in the lexicon until 1750 and 1850. This coincides with the industrial revolution – a time where flexibility and creativity were of increasing value. 

Interestingly, there aren’t personality disorders related to Openness to Experience, whereas all other Big 5 traits have extremes that correspond to diagnosable personality disorders. There are a number of reasons for this, but Ralph decided that we needed to better understand maladaptive openness. He came up with two scales representing maladaptively high openness (representing oddness/eccentricity and a strong opposition to restrictions on freedom) and two representing maladaptively low openness (representing rigidity and alexithymia/superficiality). 

The term Experiential Permeability reflects the idea that openness reflects the degree of permeability there is between someones internal experience and their outer world. 

29:50 – The relationship of openness and numinosity to schizotypy and schizophrenia.

Ralph highlights that each of the personality traits are most independent of eachother. He suggests that schizoypy is primarily associated with high openness rather than numinosity. 

31:25 – Why wasn’t the numinous picked up as a personality trait in earlier studies?

In the 1940s, Raymond Cattell undertook factor analyses on some ~4600 of Gordon Allport’s ~17000 words used to describe people. Cattell chose the subset himself, and excluded all spiritual items. But Ashton and Goldbern in that late 1980s/early 1990s used a different subset of words than Cattell and did find a personality trait reflecting spirituality and religiousness. So it seems that there was an a piori belief that spirituality and religiousness wasn’t personality, and hence should be discarded along with other traits that showed up in factor analyses of descriptors of people, such as good/bad and big/small. 

Ralph thinks the discarding of spirituality as a personality trait was a mistake because it correlates with a number of personality related outcomes, such as wellbeing, life satisfaction, interpersonal style, coping style, aspiration levels, resilience, and more. It also seems to have motivational relevance as people in different jobs tend to display different levels of numinosity. 

37:20 – How has Ralph’s proposal that spirituality is a sixth personality dimension been received?

Ralph paints a picture of a lot of resistance to the idea in scientific circles. But he also suggests that this resistance is changing and that spirituality is increasingly taken seriously in psychological research. 

42:10 – What is the role of spirituality in clinical practice?

Ralph suggests that spirituality could be important in treating symptoms related to a lack of worthiness, including moral injury, body dysmorphic disorder, substance use disorders and suicidality. Ralph is now working at developing interventions that will bring in spirituality as part of the diagnostic and treatment process. 

 

Episode Links and References

Paul Tillich – The Courage To Be

National Institutes of Health – Religion, Spirituality, and Health Scientific Interest Group

 

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