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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Guest Post: Mormon Radar 2

You can find the original Mormon Radar here. This edition, sent in by a guest poster, is aptly titled "How to Spot a Mormon Even if She's in Slacks."

DanH is originally from Salt Lake City but currently resides in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he is working on a project to measure residents' happiness, among other things. He is an early member of Outstitute, a tight-knit association of Cantabridgians and Somervillians who meet each week to discuss interesting topics related to Mormonism.

ScottHeff's recent post on Mormon Radar was a hilarious explication of something we all know we possess, but rarely talk about to outsiders. The comments section is full of people's stories of how they use this unseen power to spot their coreligionists (and funny advice on how to fine-tune the power, e.g. "If a guy comes to your door selling pesticide control, and he looks clean-cut, all-American, you can bet he is Mormon"). Whether they are on a cruise, at the amusement park, or in the courtroom, we Mormons know how to spot our own, even if we can't explain how we know as well as ScottHeff.

Well, it turns out we are right and there is scientific evidence for Mo-dar (or, Latter-day-dar, as my wife called it in the comments section).

About two years ago, a friend of mine who was working in a lab at Tufts University, decided with his colleagues to test this commonly-held belief. Scientists had already shown that there is a rational basis for belief in gay-dar. It wasn't just something joked about on Will and Grace, but a real skill that was more successful than one's chance guess. With that in mind, they set about to test Latter-day-dar, expecting that with some subtle clues, it too would work more frequently than half the time.

While they unfortunately were not able to prove the assertion, "If it's a mother who's a part time photographer, it's a statistical 90% chance she's Mormon," these psychologists did discover that Mo-dar was better than chance at predicting whether someone in a picture was LDS or not. In fact, Mo-dar worked even if the researchers inverted the portraits 180°, covered the eyes and mouth, and took out any distinct markings (like a second set of earrings, or a dork-dot from the MTC).

That is kind of incredible if you stop to think about it. People could recognize Mormons even if the face in the picture they were looking at was upside down and missing eyebrows and a mouth. It must be the Spirit, right? The researchers were all aware of this as the common explanation among Latter-day Saints for how Mo-dar works. They gathered dozens of anecdotes from people who were touched by the Spirit to immediately recognize someone from their faith; and who wouldn't want to believe that a numinous, transcendent power can help us with something as mundane as recognizing a fellow Mormon at the grocery store?

Even with that in mind, however, the researchers reached a much different conclusion. They argue that health was the key factor: "The two groups are distinguished by differences in apparent health, which appears to be expressed in facial cues signaling skin quality." With a series of complex statistical models, they teased out skin as the correlate most closely aligned with perceived spirituality. In other words, Mo-dar works because Latter-day Saints are more healthy on average, and the subtle differences that come with a smoke-free, stone-cold sober life, are perceived as increased spirituality.

So here is the $10,000 question: has your Mo-dar ever worked without an overt visual or verbal cue - i.e., over the phone with someone who didn't have a Utah accent (mount'ns) and never used mormony jargon (heck or DH)? Now that would be incredible.

Image via flickr.

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