Saturday, February 24, 2018

Spotting the Faithful

By Marjorie Howard

Is it possible to tell someone’s religious affiliation in a quick glance?

range of faces

People make inferences about group membership based on how healthy someone looks, and some see spirituality in that, researchers say. Photo: iStock

Is it possible to identify members of a religious group solely from their appearance? When a psychology graduate student told Nicholas Rule, G10, that Mormons believe they can recognize other Mormons, he was intrigued. Rule, who earned his Ph.D. in psychology at Tufts earlier this year, has been involved in numerous studies that investigate the judgments people can make from nonverbal behavior and appearance.

While working on his graduate degree, he set about testing the idea that people can tell who is a Mormon based on how they look. “We didn’t think it would work,” says Rule, who this fall became an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. “Looking at two groups of faces—Mormon and non-Mormon—nothing popped out and seemed obviously different. We were really surprised when we saw that people could tell who belonged to each group.”

The Tufts study by Rule, Nalini Ambady, professor of psychology and Neubauer Faculty Fellow in the School of Arts and Sciences, and James V. Garrett found that both Mormon and non-Mormon subjects were able to identify who was a Mormon more often than would occur by chance. It was published Dec. 7 in PLoS One.

Rule and his colleagues obtained images of Mormon and non-Mormon men and women from online personal advertisements posted in various major cities across the United States. Search criteria were restricted to individuals 18 to 30 years old who specifically indicated either membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or membership in another non-Mormon religious organization. Only headshots were shown, and the faces had no adornments, such as piercings or glasses. Even when the researchers removed important features, such as the eyes or mouth, the subjects were able to identify Mormons more often than would occur by chance.

Wanting to isolate the factors that might have been involved, Rule says, “We first took out the hair, then took away the shape of the face, then looked at different features: Is it the eyes, the mouth, the nose?”

They then covered those features, “and we found people could still tell,” he says. “We kept going until we got to having a face with very little left, and so the only thing that seemed reasonable was that it was skin texture” that was giving clues. They tested this using statistical modeling and found that skin texture had an important effect.

Rule and his colleagues say health is “reliably communicated” by someone’s skin, and cite evidence of a connection between health and Mormonism.

Mormons themselves, Rule says, believe “God is present in different people and you can observe this just by looking at them. Mormons say it’s about the holy spirit emanating from someone,” which is how they are able to identify each other.

But Mormons are known to have excellent health, as measured by life expectancy: a 24-year study found them to have a life expectancy rate six to 10 years longer than that of non-Mormons. Researchers theorize they live longer because they do not use alcohol, tobacco or caffeine and are encouraged to exercise and eat a well-balanced diet. They are also known to marry early and attend church regularly.

“People make inferences about group membership based on how healthy someone looks, and some see spirituality in that,” says Rule. “The study shows how tiny pieces of information can have a big effect and we don’t even know it’s happening. Something as benign as skin texture can tell us if someone is in a particular group and may affect how we behave toward that person.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at

Posted December 15, 2010