Is Utah Weird?

Utah is the most depressed state! (Or perhaps it’s the happiest state.) Utah has the highest bankruptcy rate of any state! Utah uses the most porn per capita of any state! Why are we interested in these rankings? This is probably obvious, but I think it’s because we read them as revealing what the effects of being Mormon are.

I see two problems, though, with looking at state rankings and drawing inferences about Mormons. First and most obviously, living in Utah is not a terribly good proxy for being Mormon. Not all Utahns are Mormons–far from it. To complicate the matter, a fair number of non-Utahns are Mormon. Although the Mormon population in states other than Utah is generally negligible in percentage terms, the presence of Mormons does highlight the fact that the populations of other states are quite religiously heterogeneous, what with all the Catholics and Muslims and Baptists and Buddhists and atheists and agnostics. So it’s kind of an odd comparison in the first place to look at Mormons versus the vast and varied set of people we would classify as “non-Mormons”: differences among non-Mormon religious groups are in many cases likely to be larger than differences between Mormons and the average of all non-Mormons.

The second problem, although it is less obvious, may be an even larger issue. Consider which categories of state rankings we focus on. Do we look at all of them? Do we care about how Utah’s state anti-cockfighting laws stack up against those of other states, for example? (They’re 44th in severity, in case you’re curious.) Of course not! The rankings we talk about are the ones where (1) Utah is extremely high or low, and (2) we imagine we can draw a causal arrow between Mormonism and Utah’s ranking.

The problem with our selective attention to only the dramatic rankings that seem connectible to Mormonism is that it leads us to overestimate both how different Utah is (and therefore Mormons are) and how clear the causal link is between Mormonism and the things being measured in the rankings. But given lots of measures that states get ranked on, Utah is going to score really high or really low on some of them, even if only by chance. And some subset of those measures will surely seem obviously related to having lots of Mormons. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they actually are all related.

Just to be clear, I definitely concede that some of Utah’s extreme rankings are almost certainly related to Mormonism. For example, I suspect that Utah’s low rankings in diseases like lung cancer can likely be directly linked to observance of the Word of Wisdom. I’m not saying there are no such links. I’m just saying I think we overstate how many of them there are and how sure we can be of them. Recall for example the discussion of Utah’s high bankruptcy rate. Perhaps it was the strain of paying tithing, some of us thought. Maybe it was the high average household size, others suggested. But it turned out to be easily accounted for by differences between states in bankruptcy laws rather than by any peculiar Mormon predilection for declaring bankruptcy.

It’s one thing for me to make this argument, but it might be more convincing to show it. If I’m right, then we’ll generally be worse at predicting how Utah will rank on a particular measure than we are at coming up with explanations after the fact that connect Utah’s ranking to Mormonism. So let me give you a little exercise to try, if you’re so inclined, to see how well you can predict how Utah ranks on a bunch of measures.

Of course, you may be concerned that I’ll be selective and pick measures on which Utah does not have an extreme ranking just to make my point. This is a valid concern. To avoid it, I’ve tried to search for state rankings in an unbiased way. I did a Google search of the words “rankings states” (just the words, not as a phrase) and took ranks from the first 20 usable matches. A few more notes on my method:

  • For sites that had multiple rankings, like the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States, I just used the first one listed that was based on per capita values (rather than totals, which would generally be heavily influenced by Utah’s rank in terms of population).
  • If data were given for multiple years, I used the most recent year available.
  • I threw out a few sites that (1) didn’t have any U.S. state rankings or (2) didn’t list ranks for all states, or (3) didn’t give numerical ranks at all (for example, the Animal Legal Defense Fund), (4) belonged to individual states, or (5) ranked states on measures that duplicated previous matches.

I’ve put the answers in white text so that they’ll initially be hidden, but you can easily click and drag across them to reveal them. Each answer is between # signs so you’ll know where to drag. (Sorry this is such a kludge; I couldn’t come up with a better way to do it.) For example, here’s the cockfighting law ranking:

How severe are Utah’s cockfighting laws? ## 44 ## (Source: Humane Society)

If you click and drag between the # signs, you should see the answer: ## 44 ##.

For each of these new ones, before looking at the answer, try to predict where Utah will generally rank and relate its ranking to Mormonism if you think there’s a connection.

How does Utah rank in terms of . . .

Percent change in population from 2000-2008? ##  3 ## (Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States)

Overall health? ##  5 ## (Source: America’s Health Rankings)

Intelligence? ## 38 ## (Source: Morgan Quitno, publisher of annual Education State Rankings)

Livability? ##  2 ## (Source: CQ Press)

Obesity? ## 44 ## (Source: CalorieLab)

Health risks from hazardous air pollutants? ## 26 ## (Source: Scorecard: The Pollution Information Site)

Child friendliness? ##  3 ## (Source: Kids Count)

Driver knowledge? ##  7 ## (Source: GMAC insurance)

Bicycle friendliness? ## 18 ## (Source: League of American Bicyclists)

Percentage of children in excellent or very good health? ##  6 ## (Source: National Survey of Children’s Health)

Jobs in clean energy? ## 35 ## (Source: Pew)

Well-being? ##  1 ## (Source: Gallup)

Cigarette excise tax? ## 36 ## (Source: Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids)

How exploitative driving laws are? ## 41 ## (Source: National Motorists Association)

Adaptation to the New Economy (whatever that meant back in 2007)? ## 12 ## (Source: Kauffman Foundation, via Business Week)

Friendliness to business? ##  5 ## (Source: CNBC)

Volunteering rate? ##  1 ## (Source: Corporation for National and Community Service)

Mortgage closing costs? ## 32 ## (Source:

Unemployment rate (July, 2009) ##  4 ## (Source: U.S. Department of Labor)

Openness to charter schools? ##  4 ## (Source: Center for Education Reform)

Utah actually had more extreme ranks than I had anticipated. But I do think there are a few rankings that really make my point. For example, what about the cigarette excise tax? Before looking at it, did you suspect that Utah would be among the highest, since Mormons don’t like smoking, and might want to penalize those who do? Or did you suspect that Utah would be among the lowest, since Mormons tend to not like taxes? Neither explanation seems unreasonable, but in fact, neither is needed, since Utah scores pretty much in the middle. Or how about jobs in clean energy? My impression is that Mormons tend to be interested in new technology, so maybe Utah would rank high. But then, Mormons also tend to be unenthusiastic about environmentalism, so maybe Utah would rank low. But again, Utah ranked in the middle.

So were there any ranks that surprised you?


  1. Nothing surprised me, but I’ve looked at many of these statistics before. I think, in terms of the main extreme result at hand—the most depressed state—has more to do, IMHO, with geography than anything else. Take all those people, put them in the Bay Area in California, and they will not be as depressed, all else being equal. Then again, maybe the depression tends to be a result of the insulation nature of a Utahn culture, but I still think that is a result of location rather than a state of being. Depression tends to have higher numbers in more isolated regions of the world than ones surrounded by gazillions of people. Utah’s geography provides a natural isolation from more populated areas of the country.

    One other thing. There is a reason why Utah tends to be looked at in more focus of what is Mormonism than other places. Church leadership is by far more concentrated out of the Utah/Idaho region, thus the culture of the Utah/Idaho region influences the direction church leaders take the church, thus that culture tends to be looked at more critically. Were the church to be more trusting of outside leadership (and they are moving in that direction), less focus might be made on Utah.

  2. Dan,

    So are you thinking that the current rankings (~current culture) might tell us something about future leadership? Or do you just think that it is perceived to tell us about future leadership?


    Thanks for putting the rankings into perspective. It is strange though that Utah is both most depressed and has the highest well-being. I would expect at least some correlation between these rankings.

  3. L-d Sus,

    Yes, I think that the Utah/Idaho culture influences the direction of the church. How can it not? Church leaders live in Utah for the most part, and for the large majority of them, their families come from the Utah/Idaho area. They are starting to branch out, to have leaders from other regions of the earth, but church leadership is still predominantly Utah/Idaho.

  4. It’s important to remember that Utah is really another Mississippi. If you put all the flow of tithing money out of Utah and it into another state, you would get a very depressed state, both economically and socially.

  5. I was surprised that obesity and intelligence were ranked so low.

    I was not surprised that Ziff found a way to talk about all these things without the slightest trace of Utah bashing. Nor was I surprised to see Utah bashing coming out in the comments.

  6. This was good fun. I don’t actually know much about Utah demographics beyond Mormonism, and so my guesses were wild. The only one that intriguied me to further reading was the high unemployment rate.

    And 38th in intelligence? Of course the tests are biased against white middle class people and especially teetotalers — all those mixed drink logic questions.

  7. The fact that they are #4 in support of charter schools is interesting, given that they are so terrible in funding public schools.

    I think that among the GAs, Utah/Idaho influence is waning. We give “credit” to where people were born, not where they matured or gained experience. (For example, I just can’t consider the last three Apostles to be Utahns. No, sorry.)

    However, all of the auxiliaries are decidedly Utahn, because they won’t call people from outside the area. When’s the last time you saw someone from Boston take over the general RS presidency?

    As for the “embracing technology” comment, I see Utah as being addicted to “gadgets”/personal technology…

    I think Utah’s a great place to visit. But I don’t think the individual are any better than anywhere else — just more of them (and wow – they let small wards exist there. If you mapped the North Texas ward creation strategy back to Utah County, you’d lose a third of the wards.)

  8. Please reread the SOURCE of the porn quote. There is a BIG differences between “uses” (your words) and “subscribes” (original). Your generalization of this stat makes Utah (and hence Mormons) look worse* than they already are.

    *Unless you believe that Utahns are too stupid to find free porn.

  9. Forgive my sloppiness, ed42. Similarly, you could argue that at least one line of evidence for Utahns being depressed (high levels of antidepressant prescriptions) merely indicates that Utahns get them, not that they necessarily take them, or that it’s not a substitution for something else.

    I should have made it more explicit in the post, but that’s kind of the point I was trying to get at: when you measure things lots of different ways (porn subscriptions vs. porn use [however you might get at that]) you get more sets of rankings and more chances for Utah to look extreme by chance alone. But it doesn’t necessarily mean any connection to Mormonism.

  10. How could you leave off the plastic surgery stats? To me, that speaks more about the underbelly (ok, bad choice of words) of Mormonism more than any, or as much as any, of these other stats. I’m not sure how we explain that one away.

  11. Utah ranks no. 4 in its unemployment rate? That is quite shocking to me. I thought it was doing better than the heavily industry based economies of the midwest.

  12. I have to wonder if that refers to the 4th lowest unemplyment rate? Because I agree, my impression is that Utah has not been as significantly affected by the current recession.

  13. I have some empiricism, if someone will indulge me.

    A few years ago, I published an article entitled “2008 Year In Review: Islam in the Courts,” which was picked up in a favorable piece by the NY Times. As a result, I received some hostile emails, including one with described me as an “Islamophobe” and claimed that I would get the same results if I applied the same methodology to ANY religion.

    I turned to Mormonism, which I know. I pulled every American court opinion, from any court, mentioning the LDS faith. To defend against accusations that any description of this body of law would be anecdoctal, I did the same thing with the Jehovah’s Witnesseses, the Seventh Day Adventists, and the Christian Scientists.

    I’m getting close to being able to publish. My question: would the Mormon blogosphere be interested in the results?

  14. It is getting old, but I picked up the book Utah in Demographic Perspective back when it was a new book. You might want to pick up a copy and consider the perspective it provides.

    And Jeff, yes!

  15. A bunch of very interesting statistics, but the answer to the question asked, no matter the statistics, is a resounding “Yes!”

  16. I don’t know if anyone has brought this up, but the porn thing is a little more complicated. The statistic says that Utah has the highest subscription of internet porn. Think about it: the typical Mormon looking for porn isn’t going to risk going into a physical store and risk having anyone seeing her/him. They’re going to find it on the internet. I wouldn’t be surprised if Utah has an average rate of overall porn usage, but more people finding it online than in a store.

  17. First of all, the ranking of “smartest” is completely bogus. Take a look at the factors they used. What the survey is really intended to measure is whether a state has an “enlightened” educational policy or not.

    To take a particularly outrageous example, the percentage of students that attend private schools is counted as a negative.

  18. One more thing, the unemployment rate rankings are in reverse order. Utah has the fourth lowest unemployment rate, and has had a much lower than average unemployment rate for quite some time.

  19. Jeff, I would love to see your results! Thanks for bringing your work up. It sounds fascinating!

    Mark D. (#21), that’s kind of my point–that there are so many ranking lists that are so varied (sometimes varied, as you point out, in using unusual definitions of things) that Utah is bound to rank very high or very low on at least some of them. And of course those are the ones that will get discussed.

    Kevin, sorry I wasn’t clear about the unemployment. I was trying to report the number directly as they had it (rather than converting it to 47th highest) to avoid having someone go to the original site and come back to tell me I was wrong. I guess I overthought it. 🙂 Thanks for clearing the point up, E.

  20. My pet peeve are front page articles in the newspaper that give the state a letter grade based on some private organization’s particularly axe grinding evaluation of state policy in some area or another. Some privately generated state rankings are similarly suspect.

  21. Thanks, Emily. I’m glad you liked it.

    Mark, I agree. And isn’t the best part when they change their ratings lots from year to year because they figure nobody will be interested in a story saying “same ratings as last year.”? (Even though, of course, states are likely to change dramatically in a single year.)

  22. Thanks for your encouragement and interest in seeing my comprative research on Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and Seventh Day Adventists. I’m preparing a piece on the history of people challenging their excommunications in American secular courts. My question: would one of you guys with original posting privileges be willing to post it somewhere (with my attribution)?

  23. Jeff, I don’t mean to overstep, but another blog (By Common Consent) has an occasional papers sort of thing that they publish electronically. You may want to submit it to them. I think it’s Also, have you looked into the print journals? I know Dialogue and Sunstone are both interested in good articles.

  24. The Utah = most depressed state thing is a bit bogus. I work closely with Utah health data and we are on the verge of publishing a report on depression in utah. As is so common with statistics, it all just depends on whose numbers you look at and how the thing is being measured. A national analysis of data from 2006 puts Utah right in the middle. In a couple of weeks, I can provide a link to the full report if anyone is interested.

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