Zelophehad’s Daughters

Why are Mormons so . . .

Posted by Ziff

A recent article at Slate described blogger Renee DiResta’s idea of looking at what people think of different states by typing the question beginning “Why is [state] so” into Google and checking what the top autocomplete search suggestions were. I thought it might be fun to try this with religions.

I used pretty much the same approach as DiResta: I typed “Why are [religion members] so” into Google and checked the autocomplete search suggestions. Google gave me up to ten suggestions per religion. The number varied, though, with some religions (e.g., Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Seventh-day Adventists) turning up no autocomplete suggestions at all. In some cases, the same result appeared more than once for the same religion because of alternative spellings (for example, judgmental and judgemental) or suggested search terms in addition to the key adjective (for example, “Why are Buddhists so happy” and “Why are Buddhists so happy picture”). In the lists below, I’ve gone ahead and listed the duplicates but dropped the extra search terms and the alternative spellings.

To summarize the autocomplete suggestions, I first rated each one as positive (+1), neutral (0), or negative (-1). When you look at the lists of suggestions, you’ll see that this wasn’t as difficult or arbitrary as it might sound. Most suggestions were either clearly positive or clearly negative. In the lists below, I’ve put words I counted as positive in blue and words I counted as negative in red. The neutral ones are in plain old black.

After rating the suggestions, I weighted them according to their order, with the first receiving 10 points, the second 9, and so on down to the last (if it was present) receiving 1 point. I multiplied the rating by the weight for each suggestion. If the first suggestion was positive, for example, this counted as a +10. If the second and third were negative, they counted as -9 and -8. Finally, I added up the products of the ratings and weights to give an overall score for how positive or negative the suggestions were for a particular religion.

Okay, after all that, you probably want me to just get to the lists already. I’ll start with Mormons and then skip around to other religious groups that I thought might be interesting to check.

Mormons (score: +20)

nice, successful, creepy, rich, happy, interested in genealogy, judgmental, annoying, wealthy, pretty

Wow! This looks way more positive than I would have guessed. We’re nice and successful and even pretty? Let’s look next at some other religions that we sometimes get lumped with and called cults.

Jehovah’s Witnesses (score: -34)

annoying, weird, stupid, strict, soliciting, solicitors

Scientologists (score: -45)

weird, secretive, stupid, crazy, dumb, defensive

There’s a surprisingly large gap between them and us: there’s not one positive word on either list. Let’s try some more mainstream Christian religions.

Catholics (score: -54)

weird, arrogant, strict, judgmental, ignorant, crazy, judgmental, guilty, mean

Ouch! Only the fact that there’s no suggestion #10 keeps Catholics from getting a perfect negative score. I guess Romney probably wasn’t aware of this when he chose Ryan as his running mate. :)

Baptists (score: -40)

hateful, judgmental, stupid, annoying, narrow-minded

Lutherans (score: -9)

Catholic, boring

Pentecostals (score: -24)

crazy, judgmental, happy, arrogant, weird

Finally, a positive word!

Evangelicals (score: -43)

hateful, annoying, stupid, crazy, pro-Israel, mean, nasty

Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians: no autocomplete suggestions

What happens if we look at Christians generally?

Christians (score: -26)

arrogant, mean, judgmental, nice, happy, fat, weird, annoying

Christians are fat? I hadn’t heard that one. Let’s look beyond Christianity to other major religions.

Jews (score: -6)

cheap, smart, rich, greedy, rude, liberal, arrogant, funny, powerful, mean

Buddhists (score: 34)

happy, happy, selfish, happy, peaceful, happy, nice, happy, annoying

The Buddhists bump Mormons down to #2. It’s just because they’re so gosh darned happy! Freakin’ Buddhists!

Hindus (score: -7)

cheap, rich, smart, afraid of Muslims, upset with Avatar, rude, ugly, stupid, dirty

Muslims (score: -33)

fanatical, crazy, sexist, backwards, sensitive to criticism, nice, smart, intolerant, rich, annoying

This is a pretty negative list, but I’m pleasantly surprised that there are a few positive suggestions in there too. Let’s try checking religious people generally.

Religious people (score: -55)

stupid, hateful, ignorant, annoying, arrogant, intolerant, gullible, stubborn, crazy, closed minded

Impressive! A perfect negative score. To be fair, let’s check the atheists too.

Atheists (score: -51)

angry, angry, arrogant, mean to Christians, mean, rude, hated, smug, bitter, annoying

Pretty much the same level of negative suggestions. I also tried Agnostics, but got no autocomplete suggestions.

Looking at all the suggestions, I have to say that I am shocked at how positively this study suggests people view Mormons. I remember the Pew survey of Americans done last fall that found that more people thought of a negative word than a positive word when asked for a one-word description of the Mormon religion. Before checking, I thought this approach would yield a result something like that study did. Maybe this means people actually are viewing Mormons in a more positive light, but it seems more likely that the difference is simply evidence that this method (if you can even call it that) isn’t capturing anything meaningful.

On that topic, I know there are a bunch of reasons to mistrust the results. Some are related to the question stem. One problem is that “Why are [religion members] so” is leading. It leads more obviously toward a negative word than a positive one. I wonder if it also might not be skewed to favor religions that English-speaking Google users know less about. Perhaps for such religions, people are more likely to complete the question stem with a positive word because they’re genuinely curious. For the better known religions, perhaps people are more venting their frustration than asking genuine questions they want answered. Another possible problem with the question stem is that it was arbitrarily chosen. People likely also search for information about religions using many other question forms (“Why are [religion members]”, “Why do [religion members]”, etc.).

You could also argue that the autocomplete suggestions are just spitting back stereotypes: Catholics are guilty, Buddhists are happy, and Jews are cheap. This appears to be true in some cases, but for Mormons, are these really common stereotypes? Mormons are pretty?

The scoring method is also arbitrary. You could argue that the weights shouldn’t decline linearly as you go through the list. Google is also increasingly customizing results depending on where you are when you search and what you’ve searched for in the past. It may be that my results are unique to me.

I’d love to hear your interpretations or criticisms or results of your replications if you want to try this with Google yourself.

20 Responses to “Why are Mormons so . . .”

  1. 1.

    I’m standing by Mormons being so danged pretty.

  2. 2.

    Kevin — ;)

    Interesting data though.

  3. 3.

    That’s fascinating. I was inspired to play around with a few other phrases.

    “Mormons are”
    Mormons are crazy
    Mormons are not Christians
    Mormons are Christians
    Mormons are a cult
    Mormons aren’t Christians
    Mormons are creepy
    Mormons are racist
    Mormons are nuts
    Mormons are morons
    Mormons are hot

    “Mormon beliefs are”
    Mormon beliefs are crazy
    Mormon beliefs are weird
    Mormon beliefs are ridiculous
    Mormon beliefs are wrong
    Mormon beliefs are they Christian
    Mormon beliefs are a joke
    Mormon beliefs are retarded

    “Mormons and”
    Mormons and blacks
    Mormons and magnets
    Mormons and polygamy
    Mormons and aliens
    Mormons and Jews
    Mormons and caffeine
    Mormons and magic underwear
    Mormons and Jesus
    Mormons and dinosaurs
    Mormons and homosexuality

    On this one, I’m quite intrigued that “Mormons and magnets” came in second. I also liked that aliens and dinosaurs made the list.

  4. 4.

    wow. Mormons and magnets? I wonder what that’s about.

  5. 5.

    Lots of places I lived growing up people only knew a few Mormons, so I remember hearing/being asked about Mormons being pretty (there were two Mormon families with pretty teen girls at one of my schools) and Mormons being rich/successful (that was at a school school was kind of a rich suburban school….of course our ward had a country more redneck school and inner city poor schools but people at my school didn’t see that).

  6. 6.

    I was unfamiliar with the Mormons and magnets thing. Apparently it’s an internet trolling meme that has taken off. People would talk to the internet missionaries and then at the end ask “how do magnets work?” and of course the kids manning the computers at the MTC didn’t know. It was just a trollish way to mess with them that has caught on. (But I think it has happened so many times now that the internet missionaries actually have a canned response to that question!)

    I think I’m sticking with Mormons are hot.

  7. 7.

    Chino wrote a post on exactly this test back in 2010!! He even made a Venn diagram for it!

    It’s interesting to see how the searches have evolved in the past couple of years. :D

  8. 8.

    I’m a little ashamed to know this off the top of my head, but Kevin Barney’s answer isn’t quite complete. The origin of the magnet question to troll online missionaries is this inane Insane Clown Posse song, which at one point asks how magnets work.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-agl0pOQfs

    Also, I’ve seen a bunch of those “let’s troll the Mormon missionaries” chats and I have to admit some of them are pretty funny. Bringing up Jesse Knight and asking how he worked (because he was a mining magnate)? Clever.

    Clearly, I spend far too much time on the internet.

  9. 9.

    I tried out your “Why are Mormons so…” and got nearly identical results, except I got secretive instead of pretty at the end.

  10. 10.

    I also tried out the “Mormons and” and was a little sad that dinosaurs didn’t come up on my results (I got “coffee” instead, and considerably higher up in the resulting list).

  11. 11.

    Chanson, thanks for the pointer. Chino’s Venn diagram in particular is pure awesomeness! It’s also really interesting that there were so many positive autocomplete suggestions for Mormons even in 2010. That suggests that this isn’t just a Mormon moment thing. Or if it is, then the Mormon moment has been longer than I thought.

    Vada, thanks for verifying the results!

  12. 12.

    Why is rich a positive for everyone but Hindus?

  13. 13.

    Oops! Good catch, Left Field. I calculated it as a positive, but I neglected to color the word blue. I’ve updated it.

  14. 14.

    I have heard people inquire about mormon prettiness before–and attribute it to how the lack of smoking and alcoholism among us keeps us looking young.

  15. 15.

    This is fascinating, Ziff. I wouldn’t have expected nearly so many positive results for Mormons, either, but I think your ideas about why that’s the case are good ones. (And it makes me sad to look at the results for the other religions, which frankly say more about the asker than members of the religion in question.)

    I’m not surprised that “pretty” is on there, and I think it has more to do with grooming than actual physical attractiveness. Missionaries are all clean-cut and smiley and dressed up much nicer than your average young people. BYU students are the same (to a certain extent). MoTab, the General Authorities, anyone who might be a public face for the church–they’re all pretty trim and tidy. There’s a lot of Stepford-type emphasis on looking a certain way in our culture, and I think that’s probably more what people mean when they think of Mormons as pretty.

  16. 16.

    Sounds more like a PR thing than accurate data. For some reason the ‘I’m a Mormon’ campaign led to an onslaught of members familiarizing themselves with the internet. Maybe if you did the Amish that would help neglect any results skewed by members themselves.

    The first link for me was to a neutral ‘Amish Facts’ followed by ‘weird’.

  17. 17.

    Wow, thanks for sharing. That is absolutely fascinating.

  18. 18.

    I just typed in “Why are Mormon” and got

    Why are Mormon girls so good looking
    Why are Mormon guys so hot
    Why are Mormon weddings secret
    Why are Mormon guys so cute

    Well, duh. The weddings are secret because we’re so damn cute. Obviously.

  19. 19.

    Kaimi,

    Shhhhhh! People will start to catch on that our secret Mormon weddings are the secret to us all being so dang cute!

  20. 20.

    […] also got a little taste this week of what Mormons are like! Ziff did some current research on the “Why are Mormons so…?” question that Chino tackled a few years ago. Also, […]

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