After polling 511 American Christians, UNC researchers surveyed their participants’ intuitive understanding about God’s appearance.
Ph.D. student Joshua Jackson, whose research focuses on culture and cultural differences, organized the study with his adviser Kurt Gray, who studies mind perception.
“We’ve been doing a few papers on how people see God’s mind, how people think about God's personality traits or characteristics the way we might think about human minds,” Jackson said.
According to the study, measuring people’s perceptions of God can be tricky because of many contradicting characteristics people tend to associate with a deity figure.
“People will say, if you ask them directly, that God can be in more than two places at once, or God doesn’t follow the rules that people follow,” Jackson said. “But when people think about the way God answers prayers, they’ll intuitively think he needs to answer one at a time the way a person would.”
Because of these contradictions, Jackson says, people's intuitions about how God’s mind works do not align with how they say God’s mind works if you ask directly. In this study, the researchers were trying to get an intuitive understanding about God’s appearance as a kind of window to the traits that people intuitively see God as holding.
“Some folks developed this method called 'reverse correlation' where you take an image and then you randomly add noise to it hundreds of times, and this creates pairs of images that differ from each other,” Jackson said. “People select the image that they think looks more like some target that you’re interested in, like a trustworthy person, or in our case God, and then you average together all the images people select.”
This average is then contrasted with the average of images people didn’t select to understand people’s intuitive impressions on a target, such as their God.
“We did this with God's face, and we found that images that people selected have some overall qualities like God tended to be Caucasian and more loving, happier, kinder and younger than the images people didn’t select,” Jackson said. “But they also differed in important ways based on people's political orientation and their own demographic characteristics.”
For example, the liberal-minded participants’ perception of God was more loving, less Caucasian and younger than the conservative-leaning participants’ God.
Jackson was surprised by the media coverage and widespread dialogue that the study spurred.
“We thought it might be something that a lot of people would find interesting,” Jackson said. “I don’t know if I was quite expecting it to go as viral as it has. The more interviews that I’ve done, the more I’ve tried to correct some of the misinterpretations that I’ve seen, but it’s been fun to see people's perspective on it and some of the commentary that it's inspired.”
Jackson saw that many people misunderstood some of the study’s findings, especially on Twitter.
“People will say ‘Oh, God looks like Elon Musk’ or ‘God looks like a guy called Steve who brings an acoustic guitar when he goes camping,’” Jackson said. “Those are funny titles, but what you have to keep in mind with reverse correlation, which is this method we used, is you start out with a base face and each individual image will only vary in certain ways from the base face. You’re never going to see a beard magically appear when we add random noise to the base face.”
We hit Franklin street to do our own research into what God really looks like. The results varied from the peculiar to the abstract. Here are a few of our favorites.