The Cost of Thoughts and Prayers

Dear Fellow Thinkers and Prayers:

Whiling away the hours surfing the web under the guise of sermon preparation, I tripped over a research study from which behavioral economists had calculated a monetary value for prayer. Ever since reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, I’ve become quite fond of the insights generated by this hybrid discipline, so I explored the study’s findings.

The research was performed by University of Wyoming Assistant Professor of Economics Linda Thunström, who designed a simple test to compare the impact of prayer on people’s generosity. The study participants were divided into three groups. One group read a few paragraphs regarding the impact of Hurricane Harvey three months after the storm and were invited to contribute any or all of five dollars they had received through an online account. The second group, all self-identified Christians, were invited to spend a few moments in prayer for the storm victims, then also invited to contribute from their five-dollar allotment. The final group were asked to quietly reflect on the devastation and how victims might feel who had suffered from the storm’s devastation, and after a few moments of reflection, they, too, were asked to contribute.

As the study was conducted online, the moments taken for the two groups’ prayer or reflection could be metered by the time lag before the participants clicked a checkbox indicating they were ready to continue the study. Curiously, prayers took an average of 19 seconds, and thoughts took only 12. I’m not sure what that means except that it clearly takes seven seconds longer to connect with God than merely with one’s own empathy.

Here’s the impact on generosity. Those who gave without the invitation for prayers or thoughts contributed an average of $1.87. Those who were challenged to think empathically, the third group, contributed an average of $2.16 per participant. The remaining group, the ones invited to offer their prayers for the victims, contributed an average of $1.23, 64 cents (34%) less than those who didn’t think at all and 93 cents (43%) less than those who thought about but did not pray for the victims. Thunström’s conclusion was not a cynical diatribe about the destructive impact of prayer on generosity, but a thoughtful reflection on the quality of prayer. If those who prayed felt their prayer provided an increased benefit for the well-being of the recipients, their financial generosity declined; but for those who connected their thoughts to the victims, their generosity increased. To quote the paper: "Prayers generate two opposing effects—the act of praying decreases donations if the donor perceives prayers to directly improve the recipient’s well-being, but it increases donations if praying makes the recipient’s well-being more salient to the donor. Crowding out occurs if the perceived substitution effect dominates the salience effect." [Working Paper: Thoughts and Prayers – Do They Crowd out Donations?, September 28, 2018: pdf p.1]
Theologically speaking, I would suggest Thunström’s work indicates the tragic consequence of a disjointed or dissociated prayer life. In the Lord’s Prayer, we are instructed to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” To pray only for forgiveness unleashes us from obligation, but the prayer that heightens our need to be forgiving connects us to others, inspiring even greater generosity.

Thunström’s data reveals the connection. Documenting the results divided between religious and non-religious participants (none of the participants asked to pray came from the non-religious set), the most generous group were those who identified themselves as religious who were asked to think about the victims. Their contributions averaged $2.38, a full 45 cents (23%) above their non-religious counterparts [op. cit. Table 2 p. 31]. For the group that neither thought nor prayed, the religious participants contributed an average of 23 cents more than the non-religious in their same cohort ($1.98 for the religious compared to $1.75 for the non-religious). In other words, people of faith are more generous than those without faith, and when asked to think about victims of tragedy, they are the most generous.

During the past year there has been much criticism of the phrase “thoughts and prayers” as an expression of hand-washing detachment, a criticism with some merit. But as Thunström illustrates, when people of faith think about others, their generosity outstrips both the faithless and those who merely pray.

I’m not sure what you think, but I’m praying you and I would contribute the whole $5.

Ringing out the year with a generous serving of behavioral economics, I remain,

With Love,
Jonathan Krogh
Your Pastor