Can Mormons Be Distinguished by Their Faces?

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

Strange as it may seem, you can tell the religious from the nonreligious simply by looking at their photos. True, it’s only a little better than chance, but it’s a still an intriguing fact. Maybe, as this woman believes, people really can see the holy spirit glowing from within:

I ran into the TA whom I asked to speak on the Holy Ghost for my baptism. I was very excited to see him. There was this sense of ‘‘glow’’ from him, which I heard about many times yet never understood, like a ‘‘Mormon Radar.’’ But I saw it for the first time and I finally understood what it is. It is the Spirit!

That fantastic quote, taken from a blog by a Mormon woman, appears in a new paper by Nicholas Rule from the University of Toronto and his colleagues. This same team has previously shown that people can pick out Mormons from Christians by looking at photos taken from online personal ads. They only chose ads from people who specified that they were either Mormon or a member of some other religious organization. So all these people took religion seriously enough to use it as a hook to catch a potential partner.

Using the photos from these ads, the researchers set out to try to find out what it was that enabled their student raters to pick out the Mormons from the non-Mormons. It turns out that they were just as good at it if you turned the faces upside down, or if you blanked out the eyes and the mouth (both of which make it difficult to detect emotion).

In fact, the researchers then discovered that the raters seemed to be detecting the Mormons based on facial shape and skin tone. And that, in turn, suggests that what they were actually doing was picking out the healthiest looking:

Both skin and facial structure, via adiposity, have been found important in the accurate perception of individuals’ health. Given that Mormons and non-Mormons are known to significantly differ in their levels of health, it therefore seemed possible that differences in health may serve as the basis for perceivers’ Mormon/non-Mormon categorizations.

They went on to show that the Mormons were indeed rated as healthier, and that this rating seemed to drive the rater’s perception of their spirituality. The strange thing was that the raters didn’t realize this. They did believe that Mormons were healthier, but they didn’t believe that was the visual cue they were using to detect them. Mormons are thought to be healthier at least partly because they lead a more abstemious life.

Does something similar explain why people can pick out the religious and nonreligious from photos? Well, there was a study last year that showed that, in the United States, the religious were not rated as being healthier. In fact, it showed that although people thought they were picking out the religious based on their healthiness, in fact they were not. So, the complete opposite of this new study then. Oh well, back to the drawing board.

Category: Blog Network


11 Responses

  1. nic says:

    Umm, not back to the drawing board quite yet. The first part of your article talks about distinguishing Mormons, then the study you mention at the end talks about the religious in general.

  2. Dean Bender says:

    Although Nic’s comment is dead on, I hope they will go back to the drawing board.
    How do you rate being at peace with yourself and God? How do you rate a person’s confidence level in life and in the future? If you could rate this, there are many Mormons who would “score” statistically higher than the general population or a general identified Christian population.
    How do I know this? As a marriage and family therapist I watch people closely and see it in the people around me. I am not trying to be arrogant but after so many such experiences, you “know internally” certain things.

  3. ElGuapo says:

    Did the researchers exclude other obvious cues from the photos? Hair style, style of clothing, number of earrings, that sort of thing? I haven’t been a believing Mormon in six years, but I can still often pick up that a person is Mormon just from visual cues.

    And on the flipside I still have acquaintances who are wholly unaware that I’ve left the faith. Had lunch with an old friend yesterday who is a Mormon bishop. I can’t seem to find an opportunity to fill him in, and yet he obviously believes I am still Mormon. We do this twice a year, and I resigned six years ago.

    All I’m saying is the idea that this is some kind of spiritual manifestation seems not to hold true in my experience. Either that or this committed atheist still has it.

  4. Jon says:

    I am a Mormon and I believe that “faithful” Mormons are easy to spot.

    In fact, while overseas in South America I was able to pick out a couple and identify not only that they were American but also Mormon from across a crowded hotel restaurant. I didn’t hear them speak until I walked up to them and point blank asked 1 if they were American and 2 if they were Mormon. They were shocked that I could so easily identify them, but Mormons do “glow” spiritually.

  5. AnneP says:

    @ElGuapo-Or else your friend the Bishop is a very wise man who prefers to treat you as if you were still the man you once were and he hopes you will be again.

  6. roger says:

    Maybe Mormons are happier, and one can cue of visual happier looking people? Maybe it’s the missionary style haircut? :)

  7. The opposite is often true as well; You can also pick out people with a dark aura just as easily and often to the point of recognizing the very nature of their personality; This concept of aura has been appreciated for centuries and is well documented.
    Those who are spiritually ‘in tune” have always been adept at this skill and it certainly is not just limited to LDS, christians, etc. but to folks of all faiths and skeptics, agnostics & atheists as also.

  8. By Joanna Brooks

    Religion Dispatches

    Dec 22. 2010

    After we reported the elimination of racist theology from chapter headings in the online edition of the Book of Mormon here at RD late last week, readers have written to point out that verses linking dark skin to accursedness remain in the Book of Mormon itself. Which is entirely true.

    Look deep into the Book of Mormon, even the newly-updated on-line version, and you will still find verses like Alma 3:6 reporting that “the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark that was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression.” Pick any Mormon wardhouse, sit in the pews for a year of Sundays, and you’ll never hear that verse cited. And with good reason.

    The above quote from the Joanna Brooks seems to add a little more perspective on the subject but it is clear with a bit of pondering that the BoM is not at all a racist book but is indeed merely reflecting the time honored reality that one can often see that the spiritual, mental, and physical health conditions of others are often reflected in their being.

    There seems to be an issue of semantics involved here. Those folks are not changed to negro or blacks or whatever! Their persona, or the aspect of their character that is presented to or perceived by others will give the impression of being dark & loathsome or in the opposite case ‘white and delightsome”.

  9. JDD says:

    While I think the possibility of spiritual perception should not be dismissed without evidence, your last paragraph implies that Mormons are not healthier than the general population. It may be true that religious people are not in general healthier, but many studies have shown that Mormons in particular are significantly healthier. They live, on average, 5-10 years longer than the population average. See, for example,

    Additionally, your sentence “This same team has previously shown that people can pick out Mormons from Christians by looking at photos taken from online personal ads” implies that Mormons are not Christians. In fact, Mormonism is a Christian denomination.

    As a Mormon scientist, I found this article moderately interesting. However, I think it’s no mystery why it was published in PLoS ONE. :)

  10. Greg West says:

    I’m a Mormon–converted to the Church over 30 years ago. I have had strangers ask me if I was Mormon. When I’d ask them how they knew, they’d just say, “There was a look about you, a kind of glow.”

    Once I was walking across the Mall in Washington, D.C. and we were stopped by some activist handing out leaflets. During the brief conversation, the girl asked me and my friends, “Are you Mormons?” We were surprised. She explained that we “looked like Mormons.” That was an odd comment, because the group of friends included Caucasians, an African-American, a Filipino, and a Puerto Rican. We all looked different, but something the girl saw told her we were Mormons.

    I have noticed that some artistically-oriented people are spiritually perceptive in a “visual” way. When I was a missionary in France, a sculptor invited us into his home. He said he had seen us walking down the street and that there were “halos” around us.

    I have had such instances occur many times in my three decades in the Church. Such things never occurred before my conversion. After baptism, Mormons receive the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. It is a spiritual presence that converts can feel. Apparently other spiritually sensitive souls can also.

    Interesting article!

  11. Randy colclough says:

    Speaking of Halos…..before my Stake President set me apart to be Ward Mission Leader I shook his hand and a white halo appeared around his head…I have also heard Bishops say they can see the countenance of members as they sit on the stand…

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