Background: The study of social categorization has largely been confined to examining groups distinguished by perceptually obvious cues. Yet many ecologically important group distinctions are less clear, permitting insights into the general processes involved in person perception. Although religious group membership is thought to be perceptually ambiguous, folk beliefs suggest that Mormons and non-Mormons can be categorized from their appearance. We tested whether Mormons could be distinguished from non-Mormons and investigated the basis for this effect to gain insight to how subtle perceptual cues can support complex social categorizations.
Methodology/principal findings: Participants categorized Mormons' and non-Mormons' faces or facial features according to their group membership. Individuals could distinguish between the two groups significantly better than chance guessing from their full faces and faces without hair, with eyes and mouth covered, without outer face shape, and inverted 180°; but not from isolated features (i.e., eyes, nose, or mouth). Perceivers' estimations of their accuracy did not match their actual accuracy. Exploration of the remaining features showed that Mormons and non-Mormons significantly differed in perceived health and that these perceptions were related to perceptions of skin quality, as demonstrated in a structural equation model representing the contributions of skin color and skin texture. Other judgments related to health (facial attractiveness, facial symmetry, and structural aspects related to body weight) did not differ between the two groups. Perceptions of health were also responsible for differences in perceived spirituality, explaining folk hypotheses that Mormons are distinct because they appear more spiritual than non-Mormons.
Conclusions/significance: Subtle markers of group membership can influence how others are perceived and categorized. Perceptions of health from non-obvious and minimal cues distinguished individuals according to their religious group membership. These data illustrate how the non-conscious detection of very subtle differences in others' appearances supports cognitively complex judgments such as social categorization.