What are thoughts and prayers worth?

Study looks to put a fi­nan­cial value on divine in­ter­ven­tion

The Prince George Citizen - - Religion -

Few ges­tures are given as freely as thoughts and prayers af­ter a na­tional tragedy. A first-of-a-kind study pub­lished Mon­day tries to es­tab­lish whether Amer­i­cans ap­pre­ci­ate the of­fer.

Chris­tians gen­er­ally value thoughts and prayers, the study found, but “this value is not uni­ver­sal,” said Linda Thun­ström, an econ­o­mist at the Univer­sity of Wy­oming. “There are other peo­ple who are, if you will, harmed or ex­pe­ri­ence dis­com­fort from re­ceiv­ing th­ese ges­tures.” Athe­ists and ag­nos­tics would pay money to avoid hav­ing a stranger pray for them and were in­dif­fer­ent to a stranger’s thoughts, the re­searchers re­port in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences.

“If you wanted to max­i­mize wel­fare for so­ci­ety,” Thun­ström said, con­sider the au­di­ence be­fore giv­ing thoughts and prayers as a re­sponse to grief.

Twit­ter – where many give and em­brace thoughts and prayers, and oth­ers swat down the of­fers – in­spired the study. U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has tweeted “thoughts and prayers” more than 30 times since he took of­fice.

A fre­quent crit­i­cism, par­tic­u­larly in the wake of mass shoot­ings, is that the ges­ture is hol­low and per­for­ma­tive.

The phrase dates to 17th-cen­tury re­li­gious man­u­als, Univer­sity of Notre Dame pro­fes­sor Thomas Tweed, who stud­ies Amer­i­can re­li­gions, told The Wash­ing­ton Post in 2015. The words have be­come a “rit­ual or cer­e­mo­nial phrase” of­fered at “dif­fi­cult mo­ments,” Tweed said, “but trans­lated into the new me­dia of Twit­ter and the other so­cial me­dia, it takes on a widely dis­parate mean­ing.”

Twit­ter “may or may not be a rep­re­sen­ta­tive kind of medium,” said study au­thor Shiri Noy, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at Deni­son Univer­sity in Ohio, “which is why we set out to look at it em­pir­i­cally.”

Thun­ström and Noy stud­ied peo­ple re­cov­er­ing from a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter.

They en­listed more than 400 North Carolini­ans in the fall of 2018, af­ter Hur­ri­cane Florence struck.

They stud­ied two groups – Chris­tians, and athe­ists or ag­nos­tics – be­cause the two are “the most, per­haps, pre­dom­i­nant in con­tem­po­rary U.S.,” Thun­ström said. A ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans, about 70 per cent, are Chris­tians. Twenty per cent are non­re­li­gious, and athe­ists and ag­nos­tics rep­re­sent a fast-grow­ing group.

At the be­gin­ning of the ex­per­i­ment, the re­searchers asked par­tic­i­pants to de­scribe hard­ships they had suf­fered within the pre­vi­ous year. Then the re­searchers in­tro­duced the of­fer of a thought or prayer given by a stranger.

Most peo­ple can­not stroll into their cor­ner stores and pur­chase a thought or prayer

– a prayer, in an econ­o­mist’s jar­gon, is a “non­mar­ket good,” Thun­ström said. So the re­searchers pre­sented par­tic­i­pants with a choice: a prayer or thought ver­sus money.

The sci­en­tists gave their sub­jects a par­tic­i­pa­tion fee, plus $5 to pay for the ex­per­i­ment. Par­tic­i­pants could use all or part of that sum in ex­change for a ges­ture – or to guar­an­tee that no one prayed for them. In ev­ery case, real money was on the line.

Let’s say Thun­ström of­fered you a prayer from a Chris­tian stranger or $5 to help over­come a hard­ship. If you de­clined the prayer, she would ask whether you wanted a prayer or $4.50. Now you take the prayer. If you were not will­ing to forgo $5 but you were will­ing to forgo $4.50, “that means your will­ing­ness to pay, or your value of the prayer, must be some­where be­tween $4.50 and $5,” Thun­ström said. Econ­o­mists have used this tech­nique to place val­ues on things like na­ture or en­dan­gered species.

In some cases, the par­tic­i­pants were told the prayer would come from a priest in­stead of a Chris­tian stranger. True to what Thun­ström called a tra­di­tion of “non-de­cep­tion” among econ­o­mists, the study au­thors ei­ther gave the par­tic­i­pants the money in ques­tion or re­cruited Chris­tian strangers – and a priest, who vol­un­teered – to pray for the peo­ple who chose the prayers.

What kind of harm the par­tic­i­pants suf­fered, whether hur­ri­cane-caused or not, did not in­flu­ence how much peo­ple val­ued thoughts and prayers. Re­li­gious be­lief, though, showed a strik­ing ef­fect.

The Chris­tians who par­tic­i­pated in this study val­ued prayer from a stranger, on av­er­age, at more than $4. A prayer from a priest was worth about $7. The non­re­li­gious par­tic­i­pants would pay a few dol­lars for a priest to not pray for them, and over $3.50 to avoid a Chris­tian stranger’s prayer.

“This ar­ti­cle raises an in­ter­est­ing point – some peo­ple, maybe, just don’t want your thoughts or prayers,” said Univer­sity of Colorado at Den­ver psy­chol­o­gist Kevin Masters, who was not a mem­ber of the re­search team. In 2006, Masters and his col­leagues an­a­lyzed the body of re­search on the ef­fects of prayer on some­one’s be­half. No study was able to show that prayer has dis­cernible health ben­e­fits on a dis­tant re­cip­i­ent.

The new re­search, Masters said, may re­flect a dif­fer­ence in per­cep­tions of prayer’s mean­ing­ful­ness. Chris­tians may as­so­ciate prayer with the type of em­pa­thy that en­cour­ages aid­ing dis­as­ter vic­tims, he said, whereas athe­ists or ag­nos­tics may not.

The pres­i­dent of South­ern Bap­tist The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, R. Al­bert Mohler Jr., de­fended ex­pres­sions of thoughts and prayers as part of the “com­mon spir­i­tual lan­guage of the Amer­i­can peo­ple” in a 2017 op-ed for The Post. “Pray­ing is not a way of avoid­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity,” he wrote, “but of af­firm­ing it.”

When asked whether peo­ple would re­spond sim­i­larly to “thoughts and prayers” af­ter mass shoot­ings or other types of dis­as­ters, Thun­ström said she “wouldn’t care to spec­u­late about that.” Thoughts or prayers from celebri­ties or politi­cians may pro­voke dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions than a stranger’s bless­ing, too. “Some­body that you iden­tify with, or whose iden­tity you know, at least – that could all mat­ter,” Thun­ström said.


Friends and fam­ily of An­dre An­chondo pray dur­ing his fu­neral mass Aug. 16, 2019 at St. Pa­trick Cathe­dral in El Paso, Texas. An­chondo who was one of the 22 killed in the mass shoot­ing at a Wal­mart on Aug. 3.

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