In the wake of the December 10 shooting at a kosher market in New Jersey, US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to offer his official statement, “Our thoughts & prayers are w/ the victims & their families during this very difficult & tragic time.”
After natural or man-made disaster strikes, social media sees a flurry of similar posts as public figures and private individuals respond and seek to offer comfort to the victims’ families.
But do these thoughts and prayers hit their target?
A duo of United States-based researchers recently examined the tangible effects of publicly offered thoughts and prayers. University of Wyoming economist Linda Thunström and Denison University anthropologist Shiri Noy published “The value of thoughts and prayers” in the 104-year-old peer-reviewed journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
The researchers found that while Christians value thoughts and prayers from religious strangers and priests, atheists and agnostics are what the duo called “prayer averse,” and would be willing to pay money to not receive said prayers. Secular victims and families reported feeling that they were actually worse off after having heard the thoughts and prayers — especially if they came from secular individuals. (The study did not discuss religions other than Christianity.)
“The net effect on recipient welfare from thoughts and prayers depends on how recipients perceive to benefit from such intercessory gestures,” said Thunström in a press release.
Noy added, “We have found that the value of ‘thoughts and prayers’ to recipients varies considerably, depending on the religious identities of the recipients.”
It turns out that the act of prayer can be translated into a “spiritual donation” for some believers.
In a second, related publication, “Thoughts and Prayers – Do They Crowd out Charity Donations?” recently published in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Thunstrӧm researched whether thoughts and prayers affect donor giving. Thunstrӧm wrote in a recent Twitter discussion on the paper that in two-thirds of incentivized experiments she performed in the wake of hurricanes, she found that prayers actually reduced charity donations, whereas thoughts alone did not.
“Prayers have two (counter veiling) effects on material aid — they increase empathy for those in need, which positively affects donations. They are also perceived as directly helpful, such that they become substitutes for material aid, which negatively affects donations,” wrote Thunstrӧm.
A dollar amount put on thoughts and prayers
In their empirical study, Thunstrӧm and Noy managed to isolate the monetary value of thoughts and prayers in the wake of North Carolina’s Hurricane Florence in September 2018. The researchers asked a sample group of 482 Christian, agnostic, and atheist victims how much money they would assign to thoughts and prayers given by secular individuals versus those from religious strangers or clergy.
According to their study, prayers from Christian strangers and priests were a net gain for fellow believers. The average Christian hurricane victim put a value on prayers from a Christian stranger at $4.36. A study high value of $7.17 was assigned to prayers coming from a priest.
On the other hand, secular hurricane victims were willing to pay in order to avoid the believers’ prayers: $3.54 to a Christian stranger, and $1.66 to a priest.
The value of thought was likewise polar: Christians valued the thoughts of religious strangers at $3.27, but secular individuals would pay $2.02 for religious strangers to keep their thoughts to themselves.
“The finding that Christians benefit from intercessory prayers, while the welfare of atheists/agnostics is reduced by such gestures, underscores the divide in this popular response to hardships,” said Thunström. “Our results also might reflect the political and religious polarization in the United States.”
Just received a briefing on the horrific shootout that took place in Jersey City, NJ. Our thoughts & prayers are w/ the victims & their families during this very difficult & tragic time. We will continue to monitor the situation as we assist local & state officials on the ground.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 10, 2019
It seems that what matters most is who sends the gesture versus what the sentiment is.
“Our results suggest that thoughts and prayers for others should ideally be employed selectively,” Thunström and Noy concluded.