Tongues and Person

Religion spans history, culture, and time. A common thread that unites the religions of the world is devotion to divinity (Smith, 1991). As noted by Smith (1991), the modern compendium of world religions is often rooted in millennia. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in religion. One such reason for this manifestation is the presence of experiences deemed religious (EDRs), as they are fraught with heightened emotion (Hui et al., 2015).

An EDR is defined as the bridge between psychosocial and cultural linguistic factors in the context of a mystical experience (Hui et al., 2015). To the religiously inclined, EDRs are perceptual evidence of the divine or an event deemed of a miracle status. This is different in concept from a religious experience, marked by assigning supernatural or preternatural traits to the observed event. While religious experiences are a broader term, EDRs are specific to perception and interpretation of that perception. Both distinctions share the characteristic of divine attribution, marking them as unique from what may be the same experience shared by another person. That other person may prescribe a more mundane origin of the event. It is important to note that EDRs, while carrying a religious association, may be experienced by those of a secular worldview.

EDRs have been grouped into four types and are a frequent occurrence in some settings (Hui et al., 2015). The four types are as follows: Healing of a physical ailment, glossolalia, marked feelings of serenity, and prayers thought to have been heard. The EDR category focused upon in this paper is glossolalia. Glossolalia is the apparent ability to speak in tongues, or, a “language” that would be normally indecipherable. While the literature usually denotes this type of EDR to charismatic – that is, Christian churches focused on the divine as Holy Spirit – and Pentecostal congregations, there is evidence of tongues being uttered in other Protestant Christian contexts (Hui et al., 2015). Glossolalia, along with physical healing, are EDRs that can be studied more extensively due to their obvious nature and public salience than the latter two types of EDRs.

Smith and Fleck (1981) distinguish between conventional and unconventional glossolalics, i.e., people who engage in glossolalia. Those who are considered to fall under the conventional class appear to be more dependent, have elevated pathology compared to the unconventional type, defensiveness, and a markedly lower degree of stability in emotions despite turning these emotions inward. Compared to the conventional class, unconventional glossolalics are reported “to be more autonomous, resourceful, intelligent, and educated” (p. 216), yet turn their emotions outward.

The question proposed in this paper is stated as, what influences glossolalia in a person? Since the majority of the research in literature has been carried out in Protestant Christian contexts, social factors beyond the scope of religion as defined by the cited literature will not be examined. Although it would be of use to peer through a wider lens, this paper will focus on three domains that pertain to the level of the individual glossolalic. In order, the three domains are psychological factors, religiosity, and effects of and on personality. It is vital that one keeps in mind that none of those domains can be issued a one-way causal relationship to glossolalia. Glossolalia may bear its influence on the domains as well, taking on a two-way interactive relationship.

Psychological Factors and Glossolalia

According to Smith and Fleck (1981), those who engage in glossolalia to bear some indication of lower intelligence than nonglossolalics. However, these authors pointed out that their comparison groups all fell within an average IQ score range and the test used, the Shipley Institute Scale, is limited in duration. The Shipley Institute of Living Scale (SILS) is an alternative to the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) and often used as a screen for employability (Creed & Wiener, 1999). Despite the objection posited by Smith and Fleck (1981), the SILS is statistically comparable to the majority of intelligence tests that are standardized (Creed & Wiener, 1999). However, its main purpose is to provide a snapshot of intellectual functioning in the broad sense, and may provide hints as to dysfunctions or impairment in cognition. The main drawback of SILS is that it was not researched extensively for efficacy and effectiveness across normal populations. It is not clear in the literature as to how or why intelligence may be a factor, yet it was researched. It has been documented in previous studies as a regular finding (Smith & Fleck, 1981), yet researchers have called for more in depth testing to confirm or deny the assumption that intelligence is lower in glossolalics than the nonglossolalic population.

Quality of life (QOL) is a perception of one’s life satisfaction. Attempts have been made to measure it more objectively with scales such as the World Health Organization Quality of Life Measures (Hui et al., 2015). Still, it is a variable predicted by Hui et al. (2015) to be increased by the effects of one’s ability to engage in glossolalia. Their results show that over the estimated duration of a year, glossolalia in fact did not improve the glossolalic’s quality of life.

Hui et al. (2015) hypothesized that stress and anxiety would improve in the wake of EDRs. In Richardson’s (1973) reinterpretation of the literature, the author made reference to statements about religion and religious movements serving as a buffer or a coping mechanism for anxiety. Yet there are flaws to these statements as Richardson (1973) pointed out, such as the referees’ attempts to generalize membership in churches as providing a therapeutic world, or not taking nonglossolalic conversion into account. Lovekin and Malony (1977) reported no display of maladaptive anxiety and hypothesized a decrease in such anxiety as measured by two individual scales. State anxiety, which is anxiety considered at the time of testing or participation in a task, was found to decrease from pretesting, post testing, and follow-up phases across participants who became glossolalic, already were glossolalic, or did not manifest any ability to do so. Notably, the group that reduced their state anxiety mean was the participants who were newly glossolalic. Those in the group that already had this ability showed the least amount of average decrease. Despite such results, after three months, the group that did not manifest glossolalia retained their decreased anxiety more than the two glossolalic groups. Trait anxiety, or anxiety as a stable characteristic across time and situations, was minimally affected by the impact of glossolalia across the three groups. Only a self-report measure yielded less trait anxiety across the testing phases.

Although the results are mixed to some degree, it can be generally said that glossolalia does not have a globally positive effect on a person in terms of their psychology.

Religiosity and Glossolalia

Religiosity, or “belief in a supernatural power and its…benefits” (Hui et al., 2015; p. 111) was presented as correlated with positive emotional states. Religiosity can also be conceived of as the degree of how religious a person is, the strength of belief in the tenets of a religion. It is linked to faith maturity, defined as a measure of an individual’s religiosity and ability to extend this into the outward domains of life, such as transformation. It was believed that people who exhibit higher religiosity and faith maturity together would identify more EDRs than others. In the two-way interaction, the EDR was thought to increase the strengths of religiosity and faith maturity in these same people. In the study carried out by Hui et al. (2015), small effect sizes below Cohen’s threshold indicated that there was no significant effect of EDRs. What was a remarkable result, however, was that the data showed that the length of time a person has been in a religion is negatively affected by glossolalia. Religiosity and faith maturity do not appear to be enhanced by glossolalia, according to a summary of Hui et al.’s tests of their hypotheses. This coincides with the observation that glossolalia does not influence one’s commitment to religion.

Personality and Glossolalia

Smith and Fleck (1981) divided glossolalics into two categories, conventional and unconventional. Given the traits stated that characterize each type, it appears that a simple, general personality profile can be sketched. The most notable difference in conventional and unconventional glossolalics is the projection of affect. Conventional types have a tendency to internalize, while unconventional types externalized. Though this may seem straightforward, if taken at a higher order category, then glossolalics as a group externalize affect while nonglossolalics internalized. Smith and Fleck (1981) posit that other personality factors come into play, such as their observation that glossolalics have higher levels of anxiety, negative self-concept, and less likely to display neuroticism. These points would agree with their classifications of conventional versus unconventional glossolalics. These could correlate with the results from Lovekin and Malony’s (1977) research, particularly with emphasis on the nonglossolalics’ retaining of their drop in anxiety levels. That is, the correlation would at minimum bear face validity due to an assumption that nonglossolalics and unconventional glossolalics are closer in terms of personality.

Drawing upon Eysenck’s dimensional model of personality, Francis and Robbins (2003) conducted a study and reviewed literature on male Evangelical clergy and laity. Grouping glossolalia under experiences in a charismatic religious framework (Francis & Robbins, 2003), extraversion is a highly salient personality trait found across their review. Francis and Kay (1995) also utilized Eysenck’s model to compare male and female candidates for ministry in Pentecostal settings. These authors did point out that they worked under the assumption that professional religious people are similar to their ordinary religious congregations. It was found that both sexes were not significantly different in extraversion from the laity, all comparisons that follow are to the laity. Male candidates showed quite lowered scores for psychoticism, and their female colleagues were about equal. Males scored higher on lie scales; females once again were similar to the laity. The striking finding for Francis and Kay (1995) was that the religious professionals scored lower than laity in neuroticism. They concluded that due to this important result, the assumption of religious professionals being adequate representatives of laity is to be rejected. Another assumption was rejected based on the data. Female extraversion was comparable to males, yet females scored higher on the lie scales and lower on neuroticism than males. When these observations are taken into account, the assumption that Pentecostal ministry candidates’ similarity in personality to other religious professionals must also be rejected.

Francis and Kay (1995) revealed that their data do not support the link between glossolalia and neuroticism, though the data suggested that glossolalia might uphold benefits to psychological health. Social learning theory and regressive behaviour theory predicted equality between the binary sexes, yet this is disconfirmed as well by the data as female candidates scored lower on psychoticism. In Richardson’s (1973) review, there had been a debate of whether glossolalia enhanced personality integration or contributed to its disintegration. Francis and Kay (1995) posited that glossolalia might in fact integrate personality. In the past, though, this sentiment would be contradicted by Lovekin and Malony (1977)’s findings that “changes in State Anxiety…were not sustained…nor were they greater than…those who did not become glossolalic” (p. 391). These authors proposed that it was the context, that is, participation in a seminar, which promoted the integration of personality rather than glossolalia itself.


Glossolalia is thought to be linked to socioeconomic status (SES), yet the data does not confirm this suspicion (Hui et al., 2015). Glossolalia researchers also targeted psychopathology, yet this too has proved unfruitful (Richardson, 1973; Lovekin & Malony, 1977; Hui et al., 2015). Instead, glossolalia may be associated with emotional stability (Hui et al., 2015).

It was suggested in the introduction of this paper that glossolalia may take on a two-way interactive relationship between the speaker and the condition itself. Glossolalia tends to be associated almost exclusively with religion, and the literature has focused primarily on Christian glossolalics, particularly of the Pentecostal denomination and similar charismatic movements. Of special importance to these movements and religious settings are EDRs; experiences deemed religious, which are separate in conceptualization from religious experiences.

Within this domain is the EDR focused upon in this paper, glossolalia. In the vernacular, this is speaking in tongues. Glossolalics can be further divided into two types, and both groups were compared either collectively or individually to ordinary populations and amongst themselves. The predominant factors that were examined are psychological, religiosity, and personality characteristics. The theme underlying these three broad factors is that they have little impact to and from glossolalia. It appears that there is no underlying programming that can trigger glossolalia in these respects, and glossolalics are not significantly unique from the normal population.

July 17th, 2016.
Creed, P. A., & Wiener, K. K. (1999). Use of the Shipley Institute of Living Scale and the Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices with unemployed populations. Retrieved July 17, 2016.

Francis, L. J., & Kay, W. K. (1995). The personality characteristics of pentecostal ministry candidates. Personality Individual Differences, 18 (5), 581-594.

Francis, L. J., & Robbins, M. (2003). Personality and glossolalia: A study among male evangelical clergy. Pastoral Psychology, 51 (5), 391-396.

Hui, C. H., Lau, W. W., Cheung, S.-H., Cheung, S.-F., Lau, E. Y., & Lam, J. (2015). Predictors and outcomes of experiences deemed religious: A longitudinal investigation. The International Journal of Psychology of Religion, 25, 109-129.

Lovekin, A., & Malony, H. N. (1977). Religious glossolalia: A longitudinal study of personality changes. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 16 (4), 383-393.

Richardson, J. T. (1973). Psychological interpretations of glossolalia: A reexamination of research. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 12 (2), 199-207.

Smith, D. S., & Fleck, J. R. (1981). Personality correlates of conventional and unconventional glossolalia. The Journal of Social Psychology, 114 (2), 209-217.

Smith, H. (1991). The world’s religions (50th Anniversary Edition ed.). New York, New York, United States of America: HarperCollins.

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