In the wake of religious conversions: Differences in cognition and emotion across three religious communities of an indigenous tribe in Malaysia

Justine Jian-Ai Thong, Rachel Sing-Kiat Ting, Laura Jobson, Louise Sundararajan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


The Indigenous spirituality of a hunter-gatherer tribe (Temiar) of Peninsular Malaysia, in the Southeast Asian region, has been fractured by religious conversions into three religious communities—Traditional, Muslim, and Christian. Based on the theoretical framework of strong-ties and weak-ties rationalities (Sundararajan, 2020), this study explored the varying degrees of change in cognition and emotion when the kinship-based spirituality of Indigenous Temiar came under the influence, through conversion, of the globalizing world religions. Thirty-seven traditional-Temiar, 32 Temiar-Muslim, and 32 Temiar-Christian took part in the semistructured interviews which elicited suffering narratives. The transcripts were then translated and back-translated into English for psycholinguistic coding via Sundararajan–Schubert Word Count and Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count on linguistic variables that operationalize the cognitive styles and emotional expression profiles. The between-group comparison revealed that traditional-Temiar and Temiar-Muslim groups retained much of the strong-ties cognitive styles of their ancestral niche, as evidenced by a significantly higher score in “collective self-representation” (e.g., we and they) compared to the Temiar-Christian group. For emotional processing, Temiar-Christians overall utilized significantly more “experience-distant modes” (e.g., intellectualization) of emotional expression than their counterparts. This mixed-method study showcased the Indigenous spirituality of an understudied tribe (Temiar) in Peninsular Malaysia. It demonstrated that changes in cognition and emotion can happen within a single generation if the conversion entails systematic weakening of strong-ties rationality, whereas if the conversion is friendly to the kinship-based infrastructures of traditional societies, converts may retain much of the traditional strong-ties rationality. This documentation of stability as well as change of an Indigenous spirituality can shed some light on the resilience and challenges of traditional strong-ties societies in the globalizing era.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)182–192
Number of pages11
JournalPsychology of Religion and Spirituality
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2024


  • Cognitive styles
  • Ecological rationality
  • Indigenous peoples
  • Religious conversion
  • Strong-ties versus weak-ties

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