Thoughts and Prayers FTW!….?

At each tragedy — disasters and mass murders and the random horrors of life, people offer thoughts and prayers.  In personal matters, in the exchange of affection and support between one person and the next, it’s what you say; it’s what I’ve said at hard times:  I’m thinking of you; I’m thinking about your family; it’s hard…I hope you’re ok.  Plenty of people have said the same to me.

But then there are the thoughts and prayers that get spoken of ritually after the big ones, the losses that become statistics, like many here, perhaps, I see red:  the Norman Vincent Peale blandness of positive thinker elevates my bile, and the cloying, promise of prayers that always sound — to my ears alone, maybe — like someone saying to those who are suffering that the pain is somehow good for them, part of the divine plan.

Well, now there’s a scientific investigation into what thoughts and prayers actually do in times of broadcast sorrow.  Here’s the question the researchers tried to answer, and a couple of possible answers:

…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.

So, which is it?

Well, as far as thoughts go, neither, really.  But when it came to prayer…

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.”

That same effect held through a second test:

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.

Caveats of course:  this is one study, or rather a write up of one study by Cass Sunstein.  It’s in behavioral economics, which is a very tricky field in which to design good experiments.  The number of participants ain’t huge, and so on.

But  heck, or rather, hell…this may well be another case of what happens a lot in econ:  a formal validation of social wisdom we already knew.  The notion that  the loud crowd with their hotline to heaven might be much more hat than cattle in the game of doing actual good in the world is not exactly a new thought.  But still, it’s always satisfying when SCIENCE confirms that the worst we think of our neighbors is actually so.

And with that:  open thread!

Titian: St. Jeromebetween 1570 and 1575.  Not a great reproduction of this amazing painting, and perhaps not fair to conflate this saint w. present day ostentatious religion-peddlars, but I have long had particular affection for this version of Jerome’s kitty cat.

30 replies
  1. 1
    Adam L Silverman says:

    We can run our own Balloon Juice version of this experiment. I’d like you all to think, pray, and actually do fund me through Patreon…//

  2. 2
    Another Scott says:

    Interesting, but not really surprising to me.

    I have usually assumed that “thoughts and prayers” are given in two contexts – 1) by those with authority to do something about the disaster/tragedy/problem but who are opposed to actually acting, and 2) religious (usually evangelical protestant) people who have no authority and (very often) little means to do anything about the issue but who want to offer some comfort.

    Maybe group #2 actually does less because they think that their prayers will have some physical effect? That is what they’ve been taught for ages, after all… :-/

    Group #1 is reprehensible, of course. It’s hard for me to get too upset with group #2. Especially when it can turn into punching down (rather than punching up at group #1).

    My $0.02. No offense intended.

    Thanks, Tom.


  3. 3
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Adam L Silverman:

    Is two out of three okay?

  4. 4
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: As long as one of those three is funding me through Patreon.//

  5. 5
    🇺🇸🌎 Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)  🗳🌷 says:

    I don’t get how people who supposedly believe in democracy, transparency, and accountability of the government can believe in an all powerful being that can hear our very thoughts and sentence us to eternal hell with no due process. These same people believe that one day Christ (God) will return to establish a Kingdom on Earth. How do they square their current democratic existences with that possible (in their minds) eventuality?

    When you look at it, the very idea of a God is extremely frightening. I wouldn’t want it to exist.

  6. 6
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    I just hate these people. All hat, no cattle. They shit on the Gospel of Matthew with their entire pious veneer.

    In the words of the great efgoldman, fuck ’em.

  7. 7
    Mary G says:

    Conservatives brag that they contribute more to charity than liberals do, but they give to their churches and a lot of it goes to pay the pastor and the fundraisers. They have no accountability whatsoever, sending missions to Africa that have no idea what Africans need, just to spread their gospel, which doesn’t do the recipients any good. They ignore the poor that live a mile from their church.

  8. 8

    @🇺🇸🌎 Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)  🗳🌷: If Gawd existed, it would be necessary to deny It/Her/Him.

  9. 9

    Jimbo was right: “You cannot petition the Lord with prayer.”

  10. 10
    Pogonip says:

    @Adam L Silverman: Sorry, Adam, a tax-collection contractor nailed me for a sizable (and flagrantly illegal) amount, so all I can send is thoughts and prayers. But I’m by far from the only victim, so when we win the class-action suit…

  11. 11
    Hungry Joe says:

    ” … might be much more hat than cattle in the game of doing actual good in the world.” Key phrase: “in the world.” Part of their motivation is that they believe they’re helping people get into the next world. Hence they’re doing good — and to hell (literally) with this world. Which is annoying, but not much more, when they don’t have power. But now they do. And the damage they’re inflicting on this world is incalculable. As for the good they’re doing for the next world, well, I’ll leave it to them to find out. Or not. (I’m thinking, “not.”)

  12. 12

    @🇺🇸🌎 Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)  🗳🌷:

    I don’t get how people who supposedly believe in democracy, transparency, and accountability of the government

    Simple. They don’t actually believe in any of those things. They want to rule, not govern. Democracy, transparency, and accountability of the government get in the way of that.

  13. 13
    🇺🇸🌎 Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)  🗳🌷 says:

    @M. Bouffant:

    Yeah, although it wouldn’t do anyone any good to do so. An omnipotent being would be by definition invincible and there’s nothing any human could do stop it from doing whatever the hell it wanted.

    You want a glimpse at what an omnipotent being would act like, look no
    further than this animated adaption of the Mysterious Stranger, an unfinished novel by Mark Twain.

    Huck Finn : [after the Mysterious Stranger wipes out an entire village of clay people] You murdered ’em!

    The Mysterious Stranger : [face slowly turns into a skull] Never mind them. People are of no value. We could make more sometime… if we need them.

    Essentially, three normal kids are brought to same level of a godlike being and find it to be a monster.

  14. 14
    Shaun says:

    @🇺🇸🌎 Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)  🗳🌷: All Christians believe that Jesus will return one day. Most of us don’t believe a rapture and tribulation will be involved. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but that interpretation of Revelation is not common outside the US, and for 1800 years it wasn’t part of Christian teaching for anyone. It just seems that way to us because evangelical Christians are the loudest ones in the country. I encourage you to look at amillenialism and postmillennialism.

  15. 15
    jl says:

    I don’t think it’s a knock on the traditional religious impulse that ‘thuoghts and prayers’ has been debased by fundamentalist preachers and cynical politicians. The whole concept of how thoughts and prayers interacted with behavior has changed dramatically. The earthly Jesus made it pretty clear that he didn’t really care much about your thoughts and prayers if they were not accompanied by compassionate actions. And James reiterated that with the slogan ‘Faith without works is dead’. So, I guess they would be considered bad people not respectful of olde tymey religion and authority with their attitude that ‘If you don’t get off your ass, I don’t give a shit about your thoughts and prayers.’ We know Fox and Friends would be shocked, and TV news actors trying to talk about Christianity would be uncomfortable.

    I forgot, or maybe never learned, what the heck Luther thought he was doing when he said he wanted to ditch the whole Epistle of James for reiterating a main theme of Jesus earthly teachings.

    But by now, the whole concept is corrupted. The whole point of has been perverted into magic incantations in hope of getting a ticket to that magic endless country club in the sky.

    Matthew 21:28-28:20 King James Version (KJV)
    ” But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”

  16. 16
    jl says:

    @Shaun: End Time Christianity has its own hermetically sealed logic. I think the key is that they turned the traditional idea of progressive revelation (which is in the Bible, in the form of successive covenants), into discrete dispensations, that really had nothing to do with each other. God’s covenants built on each other and expanded the human understanding of how to live rightly. The dispensations were more like poker hands, that fallible humans screwed up, and so God just dealt out a new play.

    So, by dispensationalist logic, after Pentecost and the Ascension, Jesus’ earthly teachings were null and void. There were a call to the Jews of day, and they turned it down. So they are all damned, except according the End Times theology, being God’s chosen people they get a second chance to convert (a cool bennie of being Jewish, from the fundies’ point of view).

    In this current and final dispensation, following Jesus’ earthly teachings could easily be a path to damnation. Now Jesus is The Risen Christ, who is done with the namby pamby compassion stuff, and is coming back to judge, redeem believers and damn the rest to eternal agony in hell. So, now, you can reinterpret all the earthly teaching of Jesus’ to have hidden meanings that revolve around accepting the Risen Christ as your personal savior, or you go to hell.

    Some of Jesus’ earthly teachings are very difficult to reinterpret. But it can be managed. When Jesus talks about the importance of compassion and giving a sip of water to the ‘littlest ones’ as a path to salvation, he doesn’t mean kids and poor people, he means helping out evangelicals who are converting unbelievers. I forget how they deal with the part in Luke where Jesus says anyone who takes him as a wise man, or a prophet, or the son of God, he doesn’t seem to care which as long as you DO his teaching, gets their reward. But they have some explanation that centers on accepting Christ as you savior, not do-gooding.

    I don’t believe this stuff, but I was curious about the oddities my traditional Christian upbringing and the weird changes in what being a Christian meant after End Times fundies, in popular US culture and media, took over the whole religion. Traditional Christians and their dangerous belief in following Jesus’ earthly teachings are kind of second class Christians these days. They are wimps and losers and don’t believe in enough violent weird horrific eschatological exciting stuff, not sadistic enough to be considered real believers of anything by current popular standards. Wimps, losers and nobodies.

    Anyway, this explains the odd choices of End Times fundy Bible study, which consists almost entirely of cherry picked passages from Paul, and dips into cherry picked violent and weird catastrophic sections of OT prophets.

  17. 17
    smike says:

    @Hungry Joe:
    Their judgemental attitudes are what galls me. Gaaauad! himself told them not to be that way, but turns out they are really old testament freaks – you know, like Muslims – and don’t care much for that Jesusy stuff.

  18. 18
  19. 19
    jl says:

    @smike: they cherry pick the old testament too. Here is a fun passage from the prophet Micah on greedy leaders, both civil and religious

    Micah 3
    Listen, you heads of Jacob
    and rulers of the house of Israel!
    Should you not know justice? —
    2 you who hate the good and love the evil,
    who tear the skin off my people,
    and the flesh off their bones;
    3 who eat the flesh of my people,
    flay their skin off them,
    break their bones in pieces,
    and chop them up like meat in a kettle,
    like flesh in a caldron.

    4 Then they will cry to the LORD,
    but he will not answer them;
    he will hide his face from them at that time,
    because they have acted wickedly.

    5 Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets
    who lead my people astray,
    who cry “Peace”
    when they have something to eat,
    but declare war against those
    who put nothing into their mouths.
    6 Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
    and darkness to you, without revelation.
    The sun shall go down upon the prophets,
    and the day shall be black over them;
    7 the seers shall be disgraced,
    and the diviners put to shame;
    they shall all cover their lips,
    for there is no answer from God.

  20. 20
    Paul T says:

    Religion Ruins Everything.

  21. 21
    hells littlest angel says:

    Thoughts and prayers are the shittiest possible gift you can give, and rejecting them is the most unconscionably boorish thing you can do. Go figure.

  22. 22
    Jack the Cold Warrior says:

    Religion aside,my wife and I fail to see Saint Jerome’s cat. Where is it?

  23. 23
    jl says:

    @Jack the Cold Warrior: There is always the big kitty cat in any top and classy pic of St Jerome doing his penance. The copy in the post is too dark to clearly see it taking its kitty nap in the lower right hand corner. Try this reproduction:

  24. 24
    J R in WV says:

    @🇺🇸🌎 Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)  🗳🌷:

    So, for once we agree totally!

    The zealous Lord of the Old Testament was a genocidal monster who killed people for nothing in a flash of irritation, burning cities and turning Lot’s wife to a pillar of salt for looking behind her at the devastation of her home.

    What a good guy. Kill all the men and boy children and enslave the women and girls…or else I’ll kill you too. It’s in the Bible!

  25. 25
    mere mortal says:

    Caveats of course: this is one study, or rather a write up of one study by Cass Sunstein. It’s in behavioral economics, which is a very tricky field in which to design good experiments.

    Cass is a titan in the field of behavioral economics. Perhaps *the* titan.

    Keep that in mind as you caveat or de-caveat.

  26. 26
    RepubAnon says:

    This isn’t a particularly new observation – consider Mark Twain’s observations below in his short story Report from the Recording Angel:

    As regards your prayers, for the week
    ending the 19th, I have the honor to report
    as follows:

    As regards your prayers, for the week
    ending the 19th, I have the honor to report
    as follows:

    For weather to advance hard coal 15
    cents per ton’. Granted.


    Prayer for weather mercifully tempered
    to the needs of the poor and the naked.
    Denied. This was a Prayer-Meeting
    Prayer. It conflicts with Item 1 of this
    report, which Was a Secret Supplication of
    the Heart. By a rigid rule of this office,
    certain sorts of Public Prayers of Professional
    Christians are forbidden to take
    precedence of Secret Supplications of the

    The story shows the inverse relationship between what the self-righteous say out loud, and what they’re really thinking.

  27. 27
    J R in WV says:


    There’s St Jerome’s kitty, I had forgotten the kitty is a lion, far bigger than St J himself! All there is room for it the kitty’s face.

    Sweet! Titian was a monster of the art world!!

  28. 28
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @jl: Of course, Matthew 6:5 is right out with the evangelicals. They can’t stop praying in public to display their piety, even though Jesus said it was bad form, at best.

  29. 29
    smintheus says:

    What the study also shows is that significant numbers of Christians give actual thought to their prayers. I’m impressed that a quarter to a third of Christians give enough thought to the matter that they decide praying means they can skip donating any money to victims in need. I had always thought “I’m praying for you” had as much basis in reality as “I’m rolling on the floor laughing out loud”.

  30. 30
    JaySinWA says:

    Okay, the study seems to indicate prayer and payer are fungible. This suggests a format for the Patreon Adam proposes. Pay for prayer, pay us to pray so you don’t have to. We would be somewhat in competition with the Televangelicals, but there should be a convenience factor. A labor saving device for the wealthy. //

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