If you offer “thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy, are you really helping the situation?
Some Christians will say yes, because that’s not all they’re doing. Thinking about the victims focuses their energies, and they will obviously do something tangible to help those in need.
The critics will say no. Thoughts and prayers are useless because they’re a substitute for meaningful action. When people die from gun violence, for example, prayers fix nothing but gun safety reform could make a big difference.
Linda Thunstrӧm of the University of Wyoming just posted a study (unpublished so far) trying to quantify the value of these intangible ideas. Simply put, do the people offering thoughts and prayers end up giving more or less money to victims?
Her answer? Less. Way less.
Her experiment involved getting people to donate to the Red Cross following Hurricane Harvey. In one trial, she told her participants, a mix of religious and non-religious people, that they had $5 and they could give any amount they wanted to the Red Cross. They could keep the rest. The average donation? $1.87, with religious people giving more ($1.98) than the atheists and agnostics ($1.75).
Well done, religious people…
But then she ran another trial in which (only) believers were told to pray for the hurricane victims before getting the $5 to donate. In that situation, the average donation was only $1.23.
The other trial involved all participants being told to think about the victims before getting the cash. This time, the average donation was $2.16 with religious people ($2.36) still giving more than non-religious people ($1.94).
So yes, it’s true, that this study found religious people to be more generous than non-religious people on the same playing field. It’s also true, however, that religious people who offered prayers gave significantly less money than atheists.
Our results imply victims of natural catastrophes may be financially worse off from people expressing their sympathy through the act of praying. This does, however, not necessarily mean that victims are worse off in terms of welfare. It is entirely possible that a recipient of these prayers assigns a positive (monetary) value to a prayer, which may or may not exceed the value by which monetary donations drop due to the act of praying.
Cass R. Sunstein summarized the results this way for Bloomberg:
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.
Thunstrӧm’s findings were replicated in a similar experiment after Hurricane Florence. However in another follow-up study with different participants and less money involved, prayer had no effect on donations. So at best, based on her results, prayer doesn’t help. But in some situations, it could make things worse.
We’re much better off, then, taking concrete action rather than simply praying to God to make everything better. It doesn’t help anybody to substitute action with prayer.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)