Does Prayer Help Disaster Victims? Here's One Way to Measure It

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After a tragedy, it is common for people to send “thoughts and prayers.” Skeptics argue that it’s much better to do something more tangible – to send money, to volunteer, or to press for reforms that will reduce future tragedies.

In the context of gun control, the idea of thoughts and prayers has become a parody of ineffectual and even pathetic responses to horrific events. Some people decry thoughts and prayers as doing nothing – except to make bystanders feel better about themselves.

But for those who think and pray, what are the actual effects of thoughts and prayers?

Here’s one speculation: Because thoughts and especially prayers focus people on human suffering, they spur concrete action. They’re not pathetic at all.

Here’s another speculation: Thoughts and prayers turn out to be a substitute for concrete action. They give people a sense that they have done something significant when they actually haven’t -- and therefore make them unlikely to do anything else.

In the first empirical study of the effects of thoughts and prayers, economist Linda Thunstrom of the University of Wyoming offers a mixed verdict. Thoughts do not affect what people do. But prayers have a significant negative effect: They make pro-social action less likely.

Thunstrom’s central experiment involved donations to the Red Cross to help victims of Hurricane Harvey, which caused devastation in Texas in August 2017. Her online experiment was conducted three months after the hurricane made landfall.

Thunstrom recruited 375 people. Of these, 225 were religious believers – specifically, Catholics and Protestants who said that they believed in God. The remaining 150 were atheists and agnostics.

Participants were presented with three conditions: baseline, prayer and thought. In the baseline category, they were told that they had been given $5, and that they could give all or part of it to the Red Cross , and keep whatever they chose not to donate.

In the prayer condition, limited to religious believers, participants were asked to pray for the hurricane’s victims; asked whether they did pray, or not; and then given the same information and asked the same question as in the baseline condition.  (The precise wording was: “We now kindly ask you to please take a moment and pray for the Hurricane Harvey flooding victims, if you feel comfortable doing so.”)

In the thought condition, participants were asked to take a moment to think about the victims; asked if they did take a moment to think about the victims; and then given the same information and asked the same question as in the baseline condition.

Under the baseline condition, the average donation was $1.87, with slightly higher numbers for religious participants ($1.98) than for atheists and agnostics ($1.75).

In the prayer condition, the average donation was $1.23. That’s a statistically significant reduction from $1.98. In Thunstrom’s view, “the act of praying crowds out monetary donations.”

In the thought condition, the average donation was $2.16, again with slightly higher numbers for religious participants ($2.36) than for atheists and agnostics ($1.94). A glance at these numbers supports what intuition suggests: Thinking about victims increased donations. But the difference from the baseline condition is not statistically significant -- which suggests that thinking about victims didn’t have much of an impact.

Thunstrom’s largest finding, then, is that praying lowered donations. Dramatic evidence: Religious believers who pray for victims turned out to be significantly less generous than nonbelievers who do not pray.

In a follow-up experiment limited to Christian participants who said that they believed in God, Thunstrom replicated her finding when asking about Hurricane Florence, which caused serious destruction in the Carolinas in September. In the baseline treatment, participants donated an average of $2.06. In the prayer condition, they donated significantly less: an average of $1.51. 

Many of us are believers. But the strongest interpretation of Thunstrom’s findings is that whatever else prayers do, they also make concrete action less likely.

Donations are, of course, just one kind of action. But if these findings generalize, the lesson is alarming. If people pray, they are also less likely to devote time and effort to helping people who in need, and also to work on behalf of reforms that will make tragedy less likely in the future.

It’s important to emphasize the limitations of Thunstrom’s research. In a second follow-up study, involving a somewhat different population of Christian believers and smaller monetary amounts ($1.50 rather than $5), Thunstrom found that prayer had no effect, positive or negative, on donations.

It is safe to say that context matters. In some settings, prayer might have no adverse effect on concrete actions. In other settings, it might spur them.

But Thunstrom’s principal finding has an unsettling implication. For many people, prayer is not an impetus to action. It is a substitute for it.

It seems appropriate to conclude with some words from the Epistle of James:

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of "The Cost-Benefit Revolution" and co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”

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