Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

“Modar” (Mormon radar) is an actual thing

I’ve joked in the past about the accuracy of my “Modar”—my ability to recognize fellow Mormons at a distance based on a few facts. (See this post about meeting a Mormon government official.)  

But I never thought that Mormon Radar was anything more than an inside joke until I read this post by my friend Dan Miller, summarizing an interesting research study about Mormons’ ability to spot their peers. Dan’s graciously given me permission to run the post again here.

Dan’s the founder of the “Points with a Crew” blog and Facebook group and is the person I credit for helping my family swing a major trip to Australia on frequent flyer miles. If you’re interested in learning how to travel more of the world for free, check out his appearance on CBS Sunday Morning, explaining how he got into the “miles and points” world so he could take his wife and six kids around the country and even the world. — JKR


A guest post by Dan Miller

Many people think that they have a “radar” where they can identify groups of people just by looking at them, talking to them or observing specific characteristics. Mormons are no different – if you talk to any Mormon, chances are good that they think they can identify other Mormons.

My (anecdotal) experience with Modar

I’ve had a couple of experiences with Modar in my life that I can remember, including 3 times in a week on our recent trip to Peru.

  • When I auditioned to be on Wheel of Fortune, the first stop was a hotel in Louisville with about 100 people. I saw a young couple that looked like they might be Mormon (spoiler alert: they were). I tried to figure out how I could ask them if they were Mormon without it sounding weird :-). Finally I decided to mention that my church had a temple here in Louisville that I had been to. After I said that they were like, “Oh, are you Mormon?”
  • In Peru, we were on the train to Machu Picchu and talking with another family that seemed like they might be Mormon. The dad mentioned that his daughter that was with him had served an 18-month mission for their church in Lima. Boom – Mormon.
  • On our way up to the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu, we ran into another Mormon family. This one was almost cheating though since they were all wearing BYU shirts. They ended up taking this picture of us:

Scientific evidence for “Modar”

Okay – calling this a scientific “fact” may be stretching things and certainly my anecdotal experience in Peru and elsewhere is no sort of proof at all.

BUT, there has been a study that gives some scientific evidence of Modar. Titled On the Perception of Religious Group Membership from Faces, researchers from the University of Toronto and Tufts University did a study to determine whether such a thing as Modar existed.

The whole study is worth a read, but here are some highlights:

  • Mormons and non-Mormons who passively observed the faces of both ingroup and outgroup members showed significantly better recognition memory for individuals belonging to their ingroup than they did for individuals belonging to their outgroup, similar to ingroup memory advantage effects commonly found for age, race and gender.
  • Images of Mormon and non-Mormon men and women were obtained from online personal advertisements posted in various major cities across the United States. Search criteria were restricted to individuals 18–30 years of age who specifically indicated either active membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or membership in another non-Mormon religious organization.
  • Special attention was paid to variation in the faces so that no obvious markers of Mormon or non-Mormon identity were present. All of the targets were Caucasian.

The study concludes that Mormons and non-Mormons subtly differ in their facial appearance, and perceivers are able to perceive these differences in a way that allows for accurate categorization. The two groups are distinguished by differences in apparent health, which appears to be expressed in facial cues signaling skin quality.

Any experiences with Modar? Do you think it exists, or is it just a bunch of bunk? Leave your thoughts in the comments.


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Don’t all sheep look the same? Since you were in Peru… did you recognize any Lamanites? PS you would be easy to spot considering your garmies are showing.

  • I don’t think that his white underwear showing above his T-shirt is a clear indication of “garmies.” However, years ago I once spotted a fellow Mormon in an elevator upon noticing the seam line across his lower back caused by one-piece garments (before revelation from God told us it was ok to not wear sacred underwear the same way our great-great-grandparents did).

    I have also asked someone I suspect if they know what “Zarahemla” refers to. Sneaky? 😉

  • Jana, I do not think it is a real thing but it is a fun post. Trump is always spouting his blowhole about fake news. This is an example of something that actually is fake.

  • Actually, such recognition is not based on physical clues. A spiritual sensitivity can exist. Please do not mock me–this is real and I have experienced it, but of course cannot “prove” it to anyone else’s satisfaction.

  • I have noticed, occasionally, that some people who are actively Christian have a sheen on their faces – almost like a glaze, which is usually accompanied by a superfluous, somewhat gormless grin and rather submissive body language. The whole effect being that they appear rather dim, but probably effusively “nice” and ignorant of the harsher vicissitudes of life.

    This is not a criticism, merely an observation. It occurs only rarely (once a year perhaps?) and does not mean that all, or indeed many, active Christians are similar, nor that the expectation of being enthusiastically “niced” into an agitated need to be somewhere (anywhere) else is limited to interaction with Christians.

    But, FWIW, it’s there – though whether its existence is due to co-incidence or cause and effect, and, if cause and effect, which (the Christianity or the “vibes”) is cause and which effect I do not know.

  • I think that you might want to call it Mormdar, Mo is a term that gay folks use amongst themselves and that homophobes use to refer to folks they suspect to be gay. Modar could be mistaken for another form of gaydar.

    Just sayin!

  • Bunch of BS, totally meant to critisize and put down.

    Why do assinine folks say, “No offense, but…” and then procede to offend with their next statement? It’s a lie every time.

  • No.

    Why did you choose to be offended?

    Mind you – it’s “criticise/criticize” not “critisize”

    and “asinine” not “assinine” –

    Perhaps the BS and the ass are closer to home than you think?

  • It’s my 1st – and I use it often.

    However – you made assertions about my post which are unsubstantiated and untrue.That is not excused by your familiarity or otherwise with the language.

  • No. I spent my teenage years associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses and I know that look that is common to true believers. When you believe and are willing to die for (maybe kill for) ideas based on ancient books written by men with no external corroboration and in the face of evidence to the contrary, you are indoctrinated. I was under that spell for a while.

  • We’ve been hanging out together here in Spirit Prison. Not much we can do to consummate the relationship until the resurrection. But even then, we’re pretty sure our genitals won’t be restored. #TKSmoothie

  • I’m the other kind of ‘mo. That’s why there is an apostrophe.

    Many times, I’ve seen a young man from the rear or side in an odd place, wearing an out of place white shirt.

    They have always been Mormons, as soon as I could find the elder bob name tag.

  • When I grew up there was always a person at the circus who would guess your age based on certain “tells”. This is the same thing that happens with people who think they can spot a member(they cant). They don’t realize they are using tells. When I see a t-shirt with a tapir on it and it says horse, I know it is a well read exmormon. I don’t have a spiritual insight or see a glow..If you live in an area with a lot of hindus, you wil see people say the same thing. Again, fun post but fake news.

  • I can spot a Mormon but then I can also spot a fundamentalist christian female. Not a male they seem to look like everyone else.

  • If you talk with most people that you wonder about for more than a minute it is easy to detect them. We give off clues. Ahh, there I just gave one.

  • I would say that the “spell” you speak of is real if there is an alternative. But there isn’t. Science does not tell a person how to live. How else to determines ones own path. You have to go with things or people that inspire you, If that inspiration fades over the years as it seems to in many cases then you would naturally think that you were under a spell. I get it.

  • Many years ago I learned in a fireside that German-mormon-Nazi-draftees were able to secretly smell each other out by whistling a LDS song such as “I am a child of God”
    That particular Nazi-draftee also felt the the “enemy” might well be one of the deported missionaries so he would aim over their heads so as not to accidentally shoot one.

  • The appearance of “rather dim” might reflect your own personal feelings about the person and the person’s faith. Do you know Mormons that are extremely intelligent. I do.

  • It is also easy to detect people who are not Mormons. Many more clues there are for who is not LDS. Tattoos .. shirts that read “Jack Daniels” there is a giant list of such non-perfect indicators when taken together help you form an opinion about a person. It is fun to play that game when I am sitting in the shopping mall waiting for my wife to be done in the fabric store.

  • I thought I made it clear that I am talking about my personal feelings.

    I did not say they are dim – merely that they appear so to me.

    I said that it was uncommon.

    I said that it was an observation rather than a criticism – just as observing that someone is tall, or is wearing an unusual shirt would be.

    My comment was not Mormon-specific – I referred to actively Christian – meaning anyone who self-identifies as such.

    Although I don’t personally know Mormons of high intelligence I’m sure they exist – as they do in (probably) all religious groups.

    As to intelligence – it is clearly not a barrier to faith – though the evidence is absolutely clear that where intelligence is linked to education the incidence of religious belief decreases – rather dramatically. My father was an Anglican priest who gained his BA in the 1920s (some years before feeling called to the ministry). I have a sister with multiple degrees who was at one time a nun.

    I cannot control the personal baggage that the reader adds to my post.

    As to specifics – I only have dealings with one Mormon and he is not an independent thinker. We are on the same education related committee.

    The first time we met he knew that I was an atheist but, as is common, misunderstood what that meant. To the extent that when I told him that atheism is the absence of belief he told me I was wrong – that it is, and therefore I hold, a belief of absence (there is no god(s)). I, gently, tried to explain but he was having none of it – even going through his laptop to try to find the article in which a member of the Twelve had stated that atheists believe there is no god. He didn’t find it so I don’t know what the article actually said, but the possibility that the writer was wrong was not an option for him.

    That is an appearance of “dim” (religion inspired ignorance/arrogance?) – something he had read knew better than I about my convictions – though it is not an example of the glowing vacuity that I, occasionally, see in the (religiously or secularly) committed, and to which I referred..

  • If you are unable to provide a justification for your aggressive dismissal of my post I am entitled, am I not, to think that you reacted from irrelevant puerile anger which you are incapable of supporting through reasoned argument.

  • OK I get it but you should be aware that saying someone looks Dim is still an insult as it would be if said that person looks fat. I have noticed a tone of mocking in conversations with Atheists in the past so I hope you could dispel that impression.

  • I disagree. I have noticed a tendency for people who hold strong views to see insults when all they are facing is a lack of agreement with their position.

    I used to be fat. That’s what I was – borderline obese. If someone had said that I looked fat I might not have liked it but taking it as an insult would have been a response crafted from a refusal to accept reality.

    Nowadays, if someone were to say that I looked fat I’d question their vision (FWIW 6′ 1″ and 190 lbs).

    Just because I feel slighted doesn’t mean I’m right to do so.

  • My original post was tongue-in-cheek, hence the wink. There is no “look” until they start talking about god – and that same look is common with all people who feel very passionate about a topic.

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses often stand out – their grooming, dress and manners. They are a cult that doesn’t tolerate deviation from their beliefs. Of course if you talk with them they will “witness” to you and give themselves away.

  • Tapirs are one of the options put forward to explain the mention of horses in the Book of Mormon. People encountering unfamiliar animals tend to name them after animals they are familiar with, and from what I’ve heard tapirs’ gait when they run resembles that of horses.

  • Wife: Honey do I look fat?
    Givethedogabone: Yes you do.
    “Ohh I get it it is just your observation” said no wife ever.

  • Yeah I have once mistaken them for a set of Mormon missionaries. Since I was working from the living room of my one-bedroom apartment they visited me often and remained non-confrontational until they realized they were wasting their time. We both shared our beliefs and neither parted from previously held beliefs.

  • Just like you cannot prove the Book of Mormon is true or that Joseph Smith really talked with God. It is all something that someone must determine for themselves by whatever means people find out about spiritual things. And people who do not believe in such things find it rather odd. Frankly, I can easily see both sides.

  • Well this seems a rather benign blog. I was expecting a few more Mormon mockers here. I guess the great and spacious building is empty at the moment and there are no mockers looking out the window. You are free to make your way down the iron rod to the tree of life, No need to stand up on the wall and proclaim the wickedness of the generation whilst slings and arrows fly by without touching you. We can all take a breather and check our Liahonas for the next part of our amazing journey through life. I know I will. It is difficult working ones way down the path due to the mists of darkness that make out feet unsteady but we all can hold firm and get there. Sometimes we stumble and let go of the iron rod. It is still there. One just needs to put one foot in front of the other. Faith in every footstep. Pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked. If you fail. No worries just get back up and fail better this time. There was only one perfect being on this earth and he has the great power of the atonement. It is available to all who ask for it.

  • I take a Sabbath rest from most electronic media on Sunday, so, now that it’s Monday, I can respond to your false assumptions about me and your claptrap claims. No matter how often you trot out your college level vocabulary, it won’t justify or support you baseless claim.

    You’ve made an unsubstantiated anecdotal claim for the intention of providing evidence that denigrates folks with religious faith, in this case Christians (Mormons). I don’t believe your story. I don’t believe that you have witnessed such a phenomenon nor your interpretation for the significance of your fictional observation. I call BS.

  • My UK size 10/12 partner of 20 years values my opinion and expects me to be truthful – whether she acts upon my opinion is another matter.

    Other people’s wives are not my concern – you make your own bed – you sleep in it!

  • If I read this correctly, the study was limited to photographs of white people. That may limit any universal utility of Modar.

  • That’s not true. You CAN prove the Book of Mormon is true. And by the way, are you looking for the eternal smile or a certain neck line? or the pants line?

  • “Exodus 20:16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”

    You are accusing me of lying or of being delusional on the sole basis that you have chosen to defend something that I was not attacking.

    Your stated anti-intellectualism suggests to me that you are probably poorly educated and have decided that, rather than work to improve the breadth and quality of your knowledge, you will take the lazy option and parade your limitations as though they were a badge of honour.

    Your intemperate language suggests to me that you are frightened by the consequences of the (erroneous) interpretation you have placed on my post.

    You are right – I offered an unsubstantiated anecdotal opinion – so what?
    And whilst it’s not strictly relevant, it’s a very minor claim compared to those, equally unsubstantiated claims, made daily by religious groups – including Christians of all the hundreds of competing varieties.

    You are attacking me because you don’t like what I said – albeit only once you have turned it in to something that I did not say and did not mean. But hey, you know what I meant better than me don’t you?

    You have imputed purpose which did not exist in order to try to justify your inappropriately aggressive reaction.

    Basically – you have decided that I did something I did not do and then called me a liar for not doing what you wanted me to do. You need help?

    I suggest you talk to a scientifically qualified person about, amongst other things, “persecution complex”.

    You will, no doubt, persist in your bile because to do otherwise might mean that you had to behave as Christ is claimed to have instructed you to behave – you know, turn the other cheek, do good to those who hate you (even when the hate is only a product of your imagination) etc. etc..

    “Matthew 5:22 whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgement”

    Incidentally I left non-vocational education at age 16 – you don’t have to do college to be able to think straight or express yourself effectively!

  • My dad was in the Air Force, and if I’m remembering what he told us correctly he was assigned once (many decades ago) to some kind of summer program for the ROTC. He was at the check-in and told the sergeant there that he could pick out the ones from Utah. The sergeant didn’t believe him, but Dad was able to pick them out as they came through — and after a bit, the sergeant was able to as well. Dad did get one wrong, though — he wasn’t from Utah but WAS a Mormon.

  • Michael, I wish you could but it seems all proof is sequestered away by God. The gold plates, the sword of Laban. Really the only proof offered is the testimony of the witnesses. That may be proof enough for me. I don’t think it is actual proof.

  • “Can I ask you something,” said the lady, out of the blue. “Are you Mormon?”
    “Yes,” I replied, not sure what was going go come next.
    “I thought so. I used to be one and I have been around them all my life. Mormons have accents!”
    Okay, that was a new one on me. I have reflected on that from time to time. They do, generally, have a certain way of speaking if they have been in the church a long time. But I am not from Utah and I don’t have a Utah accent? Once in a while traces of a Scottish twang surface.

  • It’s staggering to the mind how you can glean so much from my simple answers, even to the point that you can demean my possible lacking in education and my psychological state of mind.

    I haven’t been aggressive in anything that I’ve posted in answer to your comment above. Nor have I attached your person in any manner.

    I have stated that I do not believe that you have experienced the anecdotal claim that you make and that I believe that you make the claim to denigrate people of faith. The more you comment, the more I am convinced that my assessment is true.

    I’m not bearing false witness, as I’m not lying about anything, I’m stating my opinion. I’m not angry with you, I disagree with your claim.

    As to my lack of education, I hold a 4 year Licenciatura in Human Behavior from a Mexican state university and a 4 year Master of Theology from a US graduate seminary. I am a licensed industrial psychologist in Mexico and can teach both Human Behavior and Theology on the graduate level.

  • “It’s staggering to the mind how you can glean so much from my simple answers, even to the point that you can demean my possible lacking in education and my psychological state of mind.”
    Yet you are able to determine that I am making “claptrap claims” using “college level vocabulary” which you choose to interpret erroneously as a “baseless claim” “for the intention of providing evidence that denigrates folks with religious faith” You must think yourself an awful lot cleverer than me – even if you can’t use spell check effectively.

    “I haven’t been aggressive in anything that I’ve posted in answer to your comment above. Nor have I attached(sic) your person in any manner.”
    You have called me a liar – (“I don’t believe your story”) despite having no knowledge of me or the situations I describe on which to determine truth or untruth – that would be being aggressive even if it were true. and no – you haven’t attached my person but I suspect most readers would think you have attacked it. (“I don’t believe that you have witnessed such a phenomenon nor your interpretation for the significance of your fictional observation. I call BS”).

    “The more you comment, the more I am convinced that my assessment is true.” – only because you want to do so – the conclusion is irrational.

    “I’m not bearing false witness, as I’m not lying about anything, I’m stating my opinion. I’m not angry with you, I disagree with your claim.”
    I think you have lied. “You’ve made an unsubstantiated anecdotal claim for the intention of providing evidence that denigrates folks with religious faith, in this case Christians (Mormons).” My observation was not intended for the purpose you have wrongly chosen to identify. You have, without any evidence or reasoning, falsely decided that you think I did something and announced your error as fact – I reckon that counts as bearing false witness.

    “As to my lack of education, I hold a 4 year Licenciatura in Human Behavior from a Mexican state university and a 4 year Master of Theology from a US graduate seminary. I am a licensed industrial psychologist in Mexico and can teach both Human Behavior and Theology on the graduate level.” If you have no defence of ignorance or low intelligence what are we are left with other than misunderstanding, malice or mental illness – shall we settle for misunderstanding?,

  • It’s getting to be quite humorous watching this twitching and jerking because I don’t believe your story.

  • Do you have any idea why you chose to disbelieve and misrepresent a simple, accurate and honest anecdote?

    Do you do this habitually, is your health failing, are you under great stress at home or at work, are you losing your faith?

    Normal people in normal circumstances don’t behave as you have on this thread.

  • Not only funny, but more bizarre by the minute.

    The only thing abnormal that I see in the thread is how you manage to just go on and on about it.

    I don’t believe your anacdote and I do believe the reason you fabricated it was to denigrate believers. Period. There isn’t more to say and I think your only real response is, “OK, you don’t believe me.”

  • So you don’t know why you made an unnecessary, irrational and silly decision and you don’t know why you can’t admit to the possibility that your interpretation was wrong.

    Perhaps you should talk to someone who can help you find a more self-aware response than gaslighting and deflection.

    Hopefully you have, at least, learnt not to make false accusations based on ignorance of the situation.

  • What I have learned is that you become more and more bizarre in your comments.

    I stand by my original comment, with the exception that your BS keeps getting deeper.

  • “I stand by my original comment”.

    Of course you do – and it is still an irrational and petty-minded reaction.

    Now go and play somewhere else – I’m through.

  • I was raised Seventh Day Adventist and I was great at this game! Of course it was easy as the women didn’t (used to) wear jewelry (or even makeup!)
    I have “proven” the validity of this through multiple anecdotal experiences, striking up conversations with a family in line at The Hawaiian Cultural Center to discover they know friends of mine from a small SDA College in Tennessee!
    I have correctly identified Adventists in a Hotel elevator on Oahu; In line at Sea World, Florida; in a park in Sausolito.
    As an LDS convert I looked to conservative dress and facial cues as “Modar” indicators.
    Since I’ve stopped believing, I notice that when I wear “gentile” clothing (tank tops) I am largely ignored by Mormons, as if I am invisible.