February 9, 2015

Have Mormons been bred for gullibility?

When the Mormons left behind the Midwest and set off for the Rocky Mountains in the middle of the 19th century, they were not a random sample of Americans. Neither were other groups of frontier settlers, like the type who could make it in the Wild West. Today, the offspring of the Wild West settlers are among the most criminal whites, with Arizona leading the nation in the incarceration rate of the white population.

Mormons, though, were not selected for their rugged individualism and willingness to solve problems with violence. What traits did set them far apart from the average of their day? Well, whatever would incline one to put so much blind faith in a New Age cult ("new religious movement"), that they would trek out toward the inhospitable and untamed frontier because their leaders said that's where we need to go if we want insulation for our cult to practice plural marriage. Too bad if it means you have to leave your families and communities behind.

Sounds legit.

They would also have had to believe that their latter-day prophet had translated an ancient religious book written in Egyptian on golden plates (the Book of Mormon). And that the Garden of Eden of the Old Testament was really located in the American state of Missouri, and that the holy Israelite temple of Zion in the Old Testament was also to be restored in America.

A lazy atheist response would be that all followers of religion are gullible sheeple, how are Mormons any worse?

In fact, neither of the two major world religions today -- Christianity and Islam -- owed their initial growth to their founding prophet claiming to have discovered and properly interpreted a physical object, one that no one else saw, and using a translation method that no one else could verify. That should have alerted any normal person at the time to the strong possibility that Joseph Smith was a con man.

Jesus didn't claim to have discovered a long-lost tablet that would give the Israelites the true fullness of Mosaic laws. He preached his own take on existing laws, and listeners were either persuaded or not of his interpretation, moved or not moved by his exhortations. He wasn't trying to pull a fast one on his audience.

Mohammed's appeal was based on revelations that came to him from angels -- that's a supernatural claim that can't be verified by curious listeners, unlike the physical basis that Smith claimed for his prophecy. Either you believed Mohammed's claims about angelic revelation or you didn't, but it wasn't because he was employing flimflam techniques.

This suggests that present-day Mormons are the offspring of a population that was unusually suggestible and impressionable (to use more neutral terms than gullible), to be hooked in the first place. And to have stayed with the cult for so long in such inhospitable circumstances, they would also have had to be unusually eager to please their social superiors and to dread "making waves" against the collective.

Before turning to some hard data, let's take an impressionistic look at a Mormon woman explaining some of her religion's beliefs (video here). She's from southern California, but would blend right in among Mormon women of her generation in Utah. Overall impression: ditzy (not pejorative), free-spirited, anxious about fitting in, hopes that you like her by the end of her presentation.

That's way different from the stereotype that folks east of the Rocky Mountains have about stuffy, stern, sober Mormons. They were originally from Yankeedom, but they're more like a New Age splinter group of Puritans. New Englanders are infamous for being dour and crotchety, whereas Provo, Utah is "Happy Valley" -- even if used dismissively, the nickname still shows the peachy-keen Stepford Wives atmosphere that is more typical out West.

Getting more quantitative, we can look at the rates for con man schemes, which the government keeps close enough of an eye on for there to be national data. Google "Utah fraud per capita" and peruse the endless news reports of the Mormon capital being the most vulnerable to Ponzi schemes, "affinity fraud" (trust me, I'm one of you guys), and the like. These articles go back regularly to at least the 1990s.

Fraud per capita

Utah: Where the con is on

Utah County is hotbed of white-collar crimes

Affinity fraud: Fleecing the flock

Utah named a top Ponzi state -- again

And so on.

The scammers target LDS Church members preferentially, so it does seem to be related to Mormons specifically, and not their ethnically similar neighbors around the state. It doesn't seem to reduce to "Scandinavians are high-trust and vulnerable to con men". It's particular to followers of Mormonism.

And it doesn't generalize to all religious groups, as though the Catholics, Presbyterians, and Baptists were just as easily duped by con men.

That suggests that Mormons have been selected for higher levels of being suggestible and eager to please.

We'll see those traits come up again when we look at their temple initiation rites, which have been a constant selection pressure for those traits, right up to the present day.


  1. the Mormons don't appear to have been persecuted because they were particularly aggressive. rather, the main reason was because the religion was popular and locals were afraid the Mormons would take over.

    " "Fear of being overwhelmed politically, socially, culturally, economically by Mormon immigration was what fueled anti-Mormonism wherever the Latter-day Saints settled during Joseph Smith's lifetime. Religious belief, as non-Mormons understood it, had little to do with anti-Mormonism. On the other hand, by the mid-1830s Mormons embraced a religion that shaped their politics, economics and society. Conflict was inevitable" (p.91).

    On page 82 of the book, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, LDS historians James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard wrote, "Impressed by the Mormon image of group solidarity, some old settlers expressed fears that as a group the Mormons were determined to take over all of their lands and business.""


  2. The Mormons themselves also seem to have been very naive, blithely proclaiming themselves rightful owners to land and unintentionally offending the local establishment:

    ""The Saints themselves may not have been totally without blame in the matter. The feelings of the Missourians, even though misplaced, were undoubtedly intensified by the rhetoric of the gathering itself. They were quick to listen to the boasting of a few overzealous Saints who too-loudly declared a divine right to the land. As enthusiastic millennialists, they proclaimed that the time of the gentiles was short, and they were perhaps too quick to quote the revelation that said that 'the Lord willeth that the disciples and the children of men should open their hearts, even to purchase this whole region of country, as soon as time will permit" (The Story of the Latter-day Saints, p. 83)."

  3. This anti-Mormon website claims:

    " Mormons are so gullible that Utah is known among law enforcement agencies as the "scam capital" of the nation.""

    One of the precepts of early Mormonism was that Mormons were only allowed to deal with other Mormons. This is probably, as you pointed out, because of their gullible nature - dealing with non-Mormons would leave them vulnerable to scams.

  4. Needless to say, readers see also:

    American Nations Series | JayMan's Blog

    Especially the post:

    More Maps of the American Nations

    Good work here, good work!

  5. Now I know why the Utah state bird is the seagull. It's full of gulls!

  6. You've written about different drugs in different time period. Do you think the supposed second wave of psychedelic research is an echo of the late-midcentury and an early indicator of the return of the 60s?

  7. A.B. Prosper2/9/15, 8:15 PM

    I think you might be onto something. I've run into a lot of LDS sister missionaries lately , sweet, cute, smart feminine girls who are amazingly naive and sheltered. I like them but honestly sometimes wonder how they even get by.

    Frankly if things were significantly worse and I didn't have LDS friends who explained how missions work I'd worry about them.

    Now they aren't my problem exactly, I'm tepidly Christian but not LDS but the world isn't always safe and these SYT's seem more than a bit vulnerable.

  8. Mormons thrive by adhering strictly to the rules & regulations, and shunning those who break the rules. They are not an inward-focused people who try to understand themselves, improve their inner sinful nature, and try to reform other people's nature when they stray from the path, a la the Christian approach to moral regulation.

    Collectivist vs. individualist is the wrong way to look at that, but is probably the most common way. It's more about inner vs. outer. Both ways try to bring individual behavior into line with collective norms, rather than promote laissez-faire individualism.

    The hippies were a lot like Mormons in their naive and free-spirited ways, but their New Age cult didn't have strict collective pro-social norms and shunning of rule-breakers.

    Mormons are in a more childlike state of being, and hence require more explicitly articulated norms, constant monitoring, and strict enforcement / punishment.

    Hippies are like letting children do whatever they want with minimal or no adult supervision.

    Christian morality assumes that its audience has already lost its innocence, and now needs to learn how to self-monitor in their mature state.

  9. That's another clear pagan vs. Axial Age difference -- outer vs. inner morality.

  10. If true, it might explain that Utah was intrinsic to Mormonism's survival. The area was desolate (which is why they were allowed to stay there), so very few con men could make their way there to exploit the early settlers. Freed from natural predators, the species thrived, especially as the underlings were very eager to do the more-than-back-breaking labor of making Utah hospitable.

    Of course, the current Mormon eager-to-please attitude could be something else. Like a shift in church policy from isolation in Happy Valley to outreach. The church leaders actively encourage their members to leave for a period and convert others; as they consider this a God-directed command rather than a man-made one, even those Mormons not gifted in salesmenship are unlikely to complain about the task.

    Instead, those who would naturally be uncomfortable doing salesmenship but unable to speak out for fear of upsetting God would develop the tics the woman in the video has---you can almost hear her telling herself "calmer, you can make it through this, it's for God, just a little further." That and probably the Mormon church has emphasized to Mormons not to discuss/emphasize weirder aspects of their religion and given them specific counter-lines to say when asked about it---like a salesmen in training would get to shut down criticism of his product.

  11. Mormon here. I completely believe this article. One read was enough to persuade me!

  12. "If true, it might explain that Utah was intrinsic to Mormonism's survival. The area was desolate (which is why they were allowed to stay there), so very few con men could make their way there to exploit the early settlers. Freed from natural predators, the species thrived, especially as the underlings were very eager to do the more-than-back-breaking labor of making Utah hospitable."

    Good point. I wonder if the Parsis also live in a desolate or unreachable part of India.

  13. Seems like any religion would have to attract a people with traits both of the gullible and those who stick firm to their beliefs.

    If Mormonism just attracted the gullible, shouldn't you see higher defection rates to other religions - they'd believe any religious salesman type more. I don't know if that's the case.

    One thing I could see about Mormons, from stereotype not knowing anything about them, having any experience with them, is them having a high rate of embracing feel good stories, even if they're fake, more than specific gullibility and willingness to believe anything.

    I don't have a vision of them being guys who'll eat up any feel bad theory proffered to them, another measure of gullibility. For instance, ideas that secretly some group of apparently normal people is really weak / depraved / monstruous in private with little evidence provided, our enemies are preying on the nation and we must watch out for moments of weakness, etc.. This kind of feel bad gullibility (everyone's out to get you) combines paranoia and impressionability.

  14. "shouldn't you see higher defection rates to other religions"

    maybe you do. this is why, as mentioned, Mormonism encourages insularity.

    I wouldn't say all religious people come across as gullible. Radical Muslims don't seem particularly gullible, for instance.

  15. I wouldn't say all religious people come across as gullible. Radical Muslims don't seem particularly gullible, for instance.

    Huh, I'd have said they're the most gullible of all the Muslims - have you seen any of their "The man keeps Islam down" type ideas? The foolish ahistorical Golden Age of Islam stuff that they often swallow? They'll believe anything. Although maybe they're not gullible relative to their very low intelligence or something, so you could say the personality component of being easy to fool is low or they lack trust.

  16. gullibility isn't just believing crazy ideas. It is not being able to detect the bad intentions of others. Radical Muslims go in the opposite direction, which is that they are paranoid and prone to jealousy. Their culture is based on keeping their women locked up 24/7. Steve Sailer doesn't label much of the Muslim world and Mediterranean "the Jealousy Belt" for nothing.

    "The farther south you go, the more forward men become. This leads to a “jealousy belt” in the lower temperate latitudes, like Sicily, where shyness is low and men tend to be vain and cocksure, but the economy and culture still require intense paternal investment. There, the men are constantly trying to seduce all the women they meet and trying to keep their womenfolk from meeting and being seduced by other men. Life is full of interest in the jealousy belt!"


  17. If true, the driving mechanism would probably have to be apostasy- suspicious-minded Mormons with strong critical thinking skills concluding it's all B.S., then jumping ship and going back to "normal" America- rather than any substantial founder effect. Because of regression to the mean, even a super-credulous founding group wouldn't move the needle on the "gullibility" scale more than a few points without sustained long-term selection pressure. Do any good data exist on Mormon apostates that could be used to substantiate or rebut the theory?

    Incidentally, I once saw a painting of Joseph Smith at the National Portrait Gallery, and his expression and gaze firmly convinced me that he was a textbook charismatic sociopath. Lots of pictures of David Koresh show the same look on his face.

  18. Curtis: It is not being able to detect the bad intentions of others. Radical Muslims go in the opposite direction, which is that they are paranoid and prone to jealousy.

    It seems like they don't have much of a trust circle, but of the people they do let into it (imams, Brother Omar, whatever), they're very gullible to them. Seems more like trust then to me. Where the ideal is probably closer to trusting everyone by default, then being smart enough to know when they have dumb ideas or ulterior motives.

  19. Mormons who leave are highly unusual, since leaving brings on heavy shunning from family, friends, and acquaintances. They're going to be far less gullible or suggestible than the majority.

    The impression from what I've read (there are no representative surveys), is that Ex-Mormons are maybe 30-50% atheist, agnostic, or unaffiliated, and the rest finding a non-denominational or evangelical Christian church. Not a Christian church with much of a past, where Ex-Mormons would feel awkward and out of place within a more tight-knit community.

    In that respect, they're like people who were raised with no religion, who we do have data on -- under half remaining godless, and the rest plugging into a non-denominational church with no roots, where the existing congregation will also be fairly rootless Christians.

    And there's a definite generational effect, with X-ers and Millennials more likely than Silents or Boomers to drop religion altogether after disillusionment with Mormonism.

  20. @Hat and Belt:

    "Because of regression to the mean, even a super-credulous founding group wouldn't move the needle on the "gullibility" scale more than a few points without sustained long-term selection pressure."

    Wrong. If a population whose mean is +3 SD from the mean of the parent population split off and do their own thing, after one generation, they regress down to +1.8 SD, and that's it. The new population's mean is permanently shifted +1.8 SD. Regression to the mean is a one-time effect only (assuming reproductive isolation, i.e., no continuous inflow of average people from the outside). Founder effects are very powerful.

    As well, I don't know what defection rates of the Mormon church was, but ongoing defection can act like sustained selection.


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