“I’ve seen that face before…”
A few years ago I was joking with a friend about the Mormon folk belief that Mormons can pick out other Mormons just by their appearance (or as Mormons call it, their “countenance”). All Mormons have heard the stories: ”I saw someone walk through the door, and I could just tell they were Mormon. I went up to talk to them and it turns out I was right!” I told my friend that it would be hilarious to do an actual experimental psychology study of facial recognition, to see if Mormons could actually tell who has a “Mormon countenance” and who doesn’t. I was mostly joking, because I thought it was a big myth.
Well, I found out a few years later that such a study had been done, and imagine the look on my face when I read that the results showed that Mormons actually can do that. Here’s a link to the full study.
You might be approaching this with skepticism, and that’s good. However, may I remind you that humans are face-recognizing machines. Just think about the sheer number of people you could recognize by their face alone in the world – people you grew up with, family, school friends, work friends, celebrities, musicians, politicians, famous portraits, etc. The number for the average person could be in the thousands or tens of thousands. This is especially extraordinary considering that most faces have the same ingredients, just with slightly different sizes, shapes, colors, and space. So with that in mind, it shouldn’t be such a surprise that we might be able to pick up on cues that are very, very subtle without knowing it.
The article mentions previous research that shows that people can guess a person’s sexual orientation significantly better than chance when shown their face for a short amount of time. These studies are careful to cut out more obvious indicators, like jewelry or hairstyles, that might serve as social identifiers in certain groups, and show just the face.
So, in this particular study, Mormons guessed whether the faces they saw flashed in front of them on a screen were Mormon faces or non-Mormon faces, and they were able to guess significantly above chance. Now, to be sure, that does not mean they were always right, but it was a statistically significant effect.
So does this mean that there is some kind of spiritual, telepathic connection between believers? Could be, but the authors of the study offer some slightly more mundane explanations: the strict health code emphasized in Mormonism may lead to healthier skin and less visible age in the face. However, the article points out that these effects are so subtle that research participants often don’t know how they’re actually doing it.
I think the most interesting thing about this paper was Study 3, which examined the role in physical health in perceptions of spirituality. Statistical analysis showed that perceptions of spirituality in faces were at least partially mediated by the perceived physical health of those faces. In other words, Mormons recognize other Mormons and judge their spirituality partly based on how healthy they look. Suddenly the Word of Wisdom is not just a quirky moral code, it is a way to literally change your appearance to indicate group membership and loyalty to other Mormons – even ones you haven’t met. And all this is happening below our conscious awareness!
The obvious downside to all this instant subconscious judgment? Appearances can be deceiving, and it’s very hard to “unlearn” a false belief about a person – thus we deal with prejudice, stereotypes, and false judgment.