Response Bias in Research on Religion, Spirituality and Mental Health: A Critical Review of the Literature and Methodological Recommendations

  • Everton de Oliveira Maraldi
Psychological Exploration


Although a significant body of research supports the psychological benefits of religion and spirituality, more investigations are needed to understand the mechanisms by which they impact mental health. While some studies suggest a causal direct influence, the findings may still be subject to unmeasured factors and confounders. Despite compelling empirical support for the dangers of response bias, this has been a widely neglected topic in mental health research. The aim of this essay is to critically examine the literature addressing the role of response bias in the relationship between religion, spirituality and mental health. A survey of the diverse types of bias in this research area is presented, and methodological and theoretical issues are outlined. The validity and generalizability of the evidence are discussed, as well as the implications for mental health practice. A list of methodological remedies to reduce bias is suggested. The article is then concluded with a summary of the studies reviewed and directions for future research.


Response bias Religion Spirituality Mental health Social desirability 



This work was funded by São Paulo Research Foundation, FAPESP (Grant Number #2015/05255-2)

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


  1. Aguilar-Vafaie, M. E., & Abiari, M. (2007). Coping Response Inventory: Assessing coping among Iranian college students and introductory development of an adapted Iranian Coping Response Inventory (CRI). Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 10, 489–513.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Allport, G. W., & Ross, J. M. (1967). Personal religious orientation and prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5, 432–443.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Barber, T. X., & Silver, M. J. (1968). Fact, fiction, and the experimenter bias effect. Psychological Bulletin Monograph Supplement, 70, 1–29.Google Scholar
  4. Batson, C. D., Naife, S. J., & Pate, S. (1978). Social desirability, religious orientation and racial prejudice. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 17, 31–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bergin, A. E. (1983). Religiosity and mental health: A critical re-evaluation and meta-analysis. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 14, 170–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bonelli, R. M., & Koenig, H. G. (2013). Mental disorders, religion and spirituality 1990 to 2010: A systematic evidence-based review. Journal of Religion and Health, 52(2), 657–673.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Byrd, K. R., Hageman, A., & Belle Isle, D. (2007). Intrinsic motivation and subjective well-being: The unique contribution of intrinsic religious motivation. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 17, 141–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chesner, S. P., & Baumeister, R. F. (1985). Effect of therapist’s disclosure of religious beliefs on the intimacy of client self-disclosure. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 3, 97–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Council, J. R. (1993). Context effects in personality research. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2(2), 31–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cozby, P. C., & Bates, S. C. (2014). Methods in behavioral research (12th ed.). London: McGraw-Hill Education.Google Scholar
  11. Crandall, V. C., & Gozali, J. (1969). The social desirability of responses of children of four religious-cultural groups. Child Development, 40(3), 751–762.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Crowne, D. P., & Marlowe, D. (1960). A new scale of social desirability independent of psychopathology. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 24, 349–354.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Durkheim, E. (1912). The elementary forms of religious life (translated and with an introduction by Karen E. Fields). New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  14. Ellis, A. (1980). Psychotherapy and atheistic values: A response to A. E. Bergin’s, “Psychotherapy and religious values.”. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 48, 635–639.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Ellis, J. B., & Smith, P. C. (1991). Spiritual well-being, social desirability and reasons for living: Is there a connection? The International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 37(1), 57–63.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Eysenck, M. W. (1998). Personality and the psychology of religion. Mental Health, Religion and Culture, 1, 11–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Eysenck, H. J., & Eysenck, S. B. G. (1991). Manual of the Eysenck personality scales. London: Hodder & Stoughton.Google Scholar
  18. Fastame, M. C., Hitchcott, P. K., & Penna, M. P. (2017). Does social desirability influence psychological well-being, perceived physical health and religiosity of Italian elders? A developmental approach. Aging and Mental Health, 21(4), 348–353.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Francis, L. J. (1992). Is psychoticism really a dimension of personality fundamental to religiosity? Personality and Individual Differences, 13, 645–652.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Francis, L. J., Pearson, P. R., & Kay, W. K. (1983). Are religious children bigger liars? Psychological Reports, 52, 551–554.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Freud, S. (1927). The future of an illusion. In The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (trans & ed. Strachey, Vol. 21). London: Hogarth Press.Google Scholar
  22. Galen, L. W. (2012a). Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination. Psychological Reports, 138(5), 876–906.Google Scholar
  23. Galen, L. W. (2012b). The complex and elusive nature of religious prosociality: Reply to Myers (2012) and Saroglou (2012). Psychological Bulletin, 138, 918–923.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Galen, L. W. (2016). Commentary on Norenzayan et al.: The cultural evolution of prosocial religions. Big Gods: Extended prosociality or group binding? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 39, 29–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gawronski, B., & Paine, B. K. (2010). Handbook of implicit social cognition: Measurement, theory, and applications. New York: The Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  26. Gelfand, D. M., Gelfand, S., & Rardin, M. W. (1965). Some personality factors associated with placebo responsivity. Psychological Reports, 17, 555–562.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Gillings, V., & Joseph, S. (1996). Religiosity and social desirability: Impression management and self-deceptive positivity. Personality and Individual Differences, 21(6), 1047–1050.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Granqvist, P., Broberg, A. G., & Hagekull, B. (2014). Attachment, religiousness, and distress among the religious and spiritual: Links between religious syncretism and compensation. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 17(7), 726–740.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. K. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The implicit association test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(6), 1464–1480.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Hadaway, C. K., Marler, P. L., & Chaves, M. (1998). Overreporting church attendance in America: Evidence that demands the same verdict. American Sociological Review, 63, 122–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Holman, L., Head, M. L., Lanfear, R., & Jennions, M. D. (2015). Evidence of experimental bias in the life sciences: Why we need blind data recording. PLoS Biology, 13(7), e1002190.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  32. Houts, A. C., & Graham, K. (1986). Can religion make you crazy? Impact of client and therapist religious values on clinical judgments. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 54(2), 267–271.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Huguelet, P., & Koenig, H. G. (2007). Religion and spirituality in psychiatry. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Jong, J. (2013). Implicit measures in the experimental psychology of religion. In G. W. Dawes (Eds.), A new science of religion (pp. 65–78). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  35. King, J. E., & Crowther, M. R. (2004). The measurement of religiosity and spirituality: Examples and issues from psychology. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 17(1), 83–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. King, M., Marston, L., McManus, S., Brugha, T., Meltzer, H., & Bebbington, P. (2013). Religion, spirituality and mental health: results from a national study of English households. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 202, 68–73.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Klein, O., Doyen, S., Leys, C., Gama, P. A. M. S., Miller, S., & Questienne, L., et al. (2012). Low hopes, high expectations: Expectancy effects and the replicability of behavioral experiments. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(6), 572–584.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Knäuper, B., & Hans-Ulrich, W. (1994). Diagnosing major depression in the elderly: Evidence for response bias in standardized diagnostic interviews? Journal of Psychiatry Research, 28(2), 147–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Koenig, H. G. (2009). Research on religion, spirituality, and mental health: A review. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 54(5), 283–291.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Koenig, H. G. (2011). Spirituality and health research: Methods, measurement, statistics, and resources. Pennsylvania: Templeton Press.Google Scholar
  41. Leak, G. K., & Fish, S. (1989). Religious orientation, impression management, and self-deception: Toward a clarification of the link between religiosity and social desirability. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 28(3), 355–359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Lewis, C. A. (2000). The religious-psychoticism relationship and the two factors of social desirability: A response to Michael W. Eysenck. Mental Health, Religion and Culture, 3(1), 39–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Lewis, C. A. (2001). Cultural stereotype of the effects of religion on mental health. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 74, 359–367.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Lindeman, M., Blomqvist, S., & Takada, M. (2012). Distinguishing spirituality from other constructs: Not a matter of well-being but of belief in supernatural spirits. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 200(2), 167–173.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. MacDonald, D. A. (1997). The development of a comprehensive factor analytically derived measure of spirituality and its relationship to psychological functioning (doctoral dissertation). Windsor, Ontario, Canada: University of Windsor.Google Scholar
  46. Migdal, L., & MacDonald, D. A. (2013). Clarifying the relation between spirituality and well-being. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 201(4), 274–280.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Norenzayan, A., Shariff, A. F., Gervais, W., Willard, A. K., McNamara, R. A., Slingerland, E., et al. (2016). The cultural evolution of prosocial religions. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 39(1), 1–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Orne, M. T. (1962). On the social psychology of the psychological experiment: With particular reference to demand characteristics and their implications. American Psychologist, 17(11), 776–783.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Pargament, K., & Lomax, J. (2013). Understanding and addressing religion among people with mental illness. World Psychiatry, 12(1), 26–32.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  50. Paulhus, D. L. (1991). Measurement and control of response bias. In J. P. Robinson, P. Shaver (Eds.), Measures of personality and social psychological attitudes (pp. 17–59). San Diego: Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Paulhus, D. L., & Vazire, S. (2007). The self-report method. In R. W. Robins, R. C. Fraley (Eds.), Handbook of research methods in personality psychology (pp. 224–239). New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  52. Pearson, P. R., & Francis, L. J. (1989). The dual nature of the Eysenckian lie scales: Are religious adolescents more truthful? Personality and Individual Differences, 10, 1041–1048.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Peres, M. F. P., Kamei, H. H., Tobo, P. R., & Lucchetti, G. (2017). Mechanisms behind religiosity and spirituality’s effect on mental health, quality of life and well-being. Journal of Religion and Health. Scholar
  54. Pfister, O. (1928). The illusion of a future: A friendly disagreement with Prof. Sigmund Freud (edited, with an introduction note, by Paul Rozen). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 74(557–579), 1993.Google Scholar
  55. Plante, T. G., Yancey, S., Sherman, A., & Guertin, M. (2000). The association between strength of religious faith and psychological functioning. Pastoral Psychology, 48, 405–412.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., Lee, J. Y., & Podsakoff, N. P. (2003). Common method biases in behavioral research: A critical review of the literature and recommended remedies. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(5), 879–903.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. Reese, R. J., Gillaspy, J. A., Owen, J. J., Flora, K. L., Cunningham, L. C., Archie, D., et al. (2013). The influence of demand characteristics and social desirability on clients’ ratings of the therapeutic alliance. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(7), 696–709.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Rogler, L., Mroczek, D., Fellows, M. J., & Loftus, S. T. M. A. (2001). The neglect of response bias in mental health research. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 189(3), 182–187.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  59. Rosenthal, R. (1976). Experimenter effects in behavioral research. New York: Irvington.Google Scholar
  60. Rosenthal, R. (1994). Interpersonal expectancy effects: A 30-year perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 3(6), 176–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1992). Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Irvington.Google Scholar
  62. Rosenthal, R., & Rubin, D. B. (1978). Interpersonal expectancy effects: The first 345 studies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(3), 377–386.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Saucier, G., & Skrzypinska, K. (2006). Spiritual but not religious? Evidence for two independent dispositions. Journal of Personality, 74, 1257–1292.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  64. Savovic, J., et al. (2012). Influence of reported study design characteristics on intervention effect estimates from randomised controlled trials: Combined analysis of meta-epidemiological studies. Annals of Internal Medicine, 157, 429–438.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  65. Sedikides, C., & Gebauer, J. E. (2010). Religiosity as self-enhancement: A meta-analysis of the relation between socially desirable responding and religiosity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 17–36.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  66. Shamdasani, S. (2003). Jung and the making of modern psychology: The dream of a science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Shedler, J., Mayman, M., & Manis, M. (1993). The illusion of mental health. American Psychologist, 48(11), 1117–1131.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  68. Sheldrake, R. (1999). How widely is blind assessment used in scientific research? Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 5(3), 88–91.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  69. Smith, T. B., McCullough, M. E., & Poll, J. (2003). Religiousness and depression: Evidence for a main effect and the moderating influence of stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 614–636.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  70. Stavrova, O., Fecthenhauer, D., & Schlösser, T. (2013). Why are religious people happy? The effect of the social norm of religiosity across cultures. Social Science Research, 42, 90–105.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  71. Steffens, M. C. (2004). Is the implicit association test immune to faking? Experimental Psychology, 5(13), 165–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Trimble, D. E. (1997). The religious orientation scale: Review and meta-analysis of social desirability effects. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 57(6), 970–986.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. van de Mortel, T. F. (2008). Faking it: Social desirability response bias in self-report research. Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing, 25(4), 40–48.Google Scholar
  74. van der Linden, D., Dunkel, C. S., & Petrides, K. V. (2016). The general factor of personality (GFP) as social effectiveness: Review of the literature. Personality and Individual Differences, 101, 98–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. van Elk, M., Matzke, D., Gronau, Q. F., Guan, M., Vandekerckhove, J., & Wagenmakers, E.-J. (2015). Meta-analyses are no substitute for registered replications: A skeptical perspective on religious priming. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1–7.Google Scholar
  76. VanderWeele, T. J., Balboni, T. A., & Koh, H. K. (2017). Health and spirituality. JAMA, 318(6), 519–520.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  77. Watson, P. J., Morris, R. J., Foster, J. E., & Hood, R. W. (1986). Religiosity and social desirability. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 25(2), 215–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Watt, C., & Nagtegaal, M. (2004). Reporting of blind methods: An interdisciplinary survey. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 68, 105–114.Google Scholar
  79. Zimbauer, B. J., & Pargament, K. I. (2005). Religiousness and spirituality. In R. F. Paloutzian (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality. New York: The Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  80. Zuckerman, P. (2009). Atheism, secularity and well-being: How the findings of social science counter negative stereotypes and assumptions. Sociology Compass, 10, 949–971.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Zuckerman, P., Galen, L. W., & Pasquale, F. L. (2016). The nonreligious: Understanding secular people and societies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Social Psychology of Religion Laboratory, Department of Social and Work Psychology, Institute of PsychologyUniversity of São Paulo (USP)São PauloBrazil

Personalised recommendations