Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hey, good lookin'. you must be a Mormon!

Posted: 20 Dec 2010 08:51 AM PST

Strange as it may seem, you can tell the the religious from the non-religious 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 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 organisation. So all these people took religion seriously enough to use it as a hook to catch a potential partner.

Only Image F (with eyes and mouth blanked) is needed to pick out Mormons from non-Mormons.

Using the photos from these ads, they 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, they 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 they 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 realise this. They did believe that Mormons were healthier, but they didn’t believe that’s 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. In fact, there was a study out just last week showing that sleep deprivation can have a measurable effect on appearance.

Does something similar explain why people can pick out the religious and non-religious from photos? Well, there was a study last year which showed that, in the US, 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!

ResearchBlogging.orgRule NO, Garrett JV, & Ambady N (2010). On the perception of religious group membership from faces. PloS one, 5 (12) PMID: 21151864

Creative Commons LicenseThis article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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The End is Near

Posted: 19 Dec 2010 09:45 PM PST

Christmas shopping got you down? Depressed that you can’t afford the kind of presents you really want to give? There’s a way out. It’s called “borrowing money.” Borrow every penny you can, and spend it as fast as you can. Just make sure the loans come due after October 21, 2011. Since the world is going to end that day, you’ll never have to repay those loans. Thus says Harold Camping, founder of Family Radio, who is urging his followers to pay for signs and billboards all over America reminding people to “Save the Date!”

You can even shop at a jewelry store in Superior, Minnesota which is advertising a special half price sale on all merchandise – far better than a mere “Going out of business” sale, it’s a “Second Coming” sale. When asked why he wasn’t just giving his wares away, owner Larry Falter explained that he had creditors to take care of before the Rapture, and didn’t want to have to explain how he stiffed them on Judgment Day. If you’re reading this article, though, chances are you’re already so far gone that just paying off a few bills isn’t going to do you any good, so you may as well go ahead and borrow all you can now.

The Calculation

According to Camping, the “Rapture” for good Protestants will arrive on May 21. Five months later, on October 21, “God will destroy this world.” This information is contained in the Bible itself; all you have to do is read it correctly, the way Camping does. First, he starts with the “fact” that the Great Flood occurred in 4990 BC. Then he combines Peter’s comment that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years” with God’s warning to Noah that the earth would be flooded in 7 days. Since each day is a thousand years, 7000 years from 4990 BC lands you right in the middle of 2011. Mathematical formulae far more complicated than I can understand measure 722,500 days from the date of the Crucifixion (April Fools’ Day, 33 AD) to reach an even more precise result, of Rapture on May 21, 2011. How he gets the five months from the May 21 Rapture to the October 21 end of the world isn’t clear, but if he gets the first one right I think we’ll all give him the benefit of the doubt.

Camping is spreading his message on rolling billboards and even park bench advertising. His impact is not nearly as great, though, as that of America’s leading 19th century prophet of doom, William Miller.


Miller was a farmer and self-taught expert on the Bible, who lived in the same part of the country where Joseph Smith founded the Mormon church. He was particularly intrigued by Daniel 8:14: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days, then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Clearly, this meant that the end of the world and the final judgment day would occur on October 22, 1844.


Well, everyone knows that the word “days” actually means “years,” because Mr. Daniel or whoever wrote that book was too dumb to write the word “years” when that’s what he meant. (Miller obviously didn’t read Peter’s formula that a day is actually a thousand years.) For no readily evident reason, Miller also concluded that the starting point for counting off the 2,300 years was an event that occurred in 457 BC while the Babylonians were sending commissioners out to pacify conquered Jerusalem, described in another chapter of Daniel. Add 2,300 years to that, and you get 1843. Miller decided that spring would be the natural time for “cleansing,” so the world would end in spring of 1843.

1843 came, spring turned into summer, and no end of the world happened. A math whiz pointed out to Miller that he had made a mistake: since there was no Year 0, civilization having leapt directly from 1 BC to 1 AD, the end would actually come in 1844. That made sense; moreover, putting the date near the end of the year would stretch things out a little longer than putting it in the spring, so Miller fixed the end of the world for the Jewish Day of Atonement, which in 1844 fell on October 22.

Miller was taken seriously by a lot of people; he had something like 150,000 followers, out of a national population of 18 million. They duly prepared themselves for the great event, gathering on hilltops on the morning of October 22 to be closer to God, who might not have been able to find them otherwise.

One would think that would have been the end of Mr. Miller and his prognostications; frankly, he is not a fellow I would like to take with me to the racetrack. But after due deliberation, Miller and his brain trust announced that their computations had actually been right, and the great cleansing had in fact occurred – in heaven, not on earth. Jesus and his entourage had moved themselves into a different room up there, sort of an airlock like they have on the space station, to get themselves ready to come down to earth for the really real final judgment day, which would be coming very soon. This maneuver had occurred exactly when Miller predicted it would: on October 22, 1844. See? No problem. Something like half of Miller’s followers bought this explanation, forming what is today called the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which now has millions of members and missionary activities around the world. Abraham Lincoln was right: you really can fool some of the people all of the time.

Flub #1

False predictions of the end of the world go back much further than William Miller, though. The earliest I am aware of was made by a Jewish preacher during Roman times, who is reported to have said:

And then shall appear the sign of the son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. … Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.

Sources indicate that Jesus’ followers firmly believed that the final judgment with the angels and the trumpets would come during their lifetimes, just as he had predicted; this certainty helped fuel the revolt against Roman rule in 70 AD that devastated Palestine. Just as with Miller, though, the failure of the prophecy did not deter the descendants of Jesus’ followers from believing other things he taught. In fact, within a couple of hundred years, those descendants began to insist that Jesus was actually God, a claim neither Jesus nor those who knew him had ever made – he actually is supposed to have said rather the opposite: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

So maybe a couple of hundred years from now, people will start worshiping Harold Camping as a God. As for the borrowing strategy, don’t laugh: belief that the world will end in less than a year is the most plausible explanation I can think of for the “tax less, spend more” fiscal plan approved in Washington last week.

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