Field of Science

A prayer a day to make you grateful

People who pray more are also often more grateful about, well, stuff. For instance, they're more likely to agree that "I have so much in life to be grateful for" (here's a Gratitude Scale, with six other similar questions).

Here's the thing, though. Is it the prayer that makes people grateful, or is it just that people who are grateful are more likely to pray?

It's a classic problem, and the only way to really sort it out is to do an 'interventional' study. That's one in which you take a group of people, put half on one 'treatment' and the other half on another, and see what happens.

Studies like this are pretty rare in sociology, for practical reasons, but that's exactly what Nathaniel Lambert and colleagues from Florida State University have done.

They took a group of about 100 students, almost all women and all of them in a current romantic relationship, and put them in four different groups. The first two groups were asked to pray daily, and the second two were asked to do a task unrelated to prayer. Here's the details of the groups:

  1. Pray daily for the well-being of your partner
  2. Pray daily (with no specific instructions)
  3. Report daily on their activities for the day
  4. Think positive thoughts about their partner

Then they assessed all the participants for their level of gratitude. It seems (although the paper doesn't spell it out) that there weren't any statistically significant differences.

So they lumped together the two 'prayer' groups and the two other groups. That has the effect of increasing the statistical power.

Doing this comparison, they found a significant difference. Those students who were asked to pray daily did become more grateful.

This is a great study simply because it is interventional. What's more, they controlled for 'social desirability' - the tendency for some people to tell you what they think you want to hear. So it's good evidence of genuine cause and effect. But there are a few problems with it that need to be remembered.

Firstly, they excluded all the non-religious people - in other words all though who said they rarely or never prayed. That amounted to about 25% of potential participants. So this is a study of the effect of prayer in people who already see some benefit to it, but who just don't get around to it as often as they might.

Second, the effect is pretty small - about 1.6 units on a scale that stretches up to 42. The effect might be statistically significant, but that's not the same as saying it's important (Olivier Morin has written about this recently over on ICCI blog). Without the authors putting the results into context of other factors that affect gratitude, it's hard to judge.

And third, the after-the-fact lumping together of groups because they didn't see the result they expected is a little bit dodgy (although much worse goes on regularly, it has to be said).

But despite these caveats, this is a good study. However, it leaves open the question of why prayer should increase gratitude. Mike McCullough, at the University of Miami, put forward some potential reasons in a 2002 paper:

  • Most religions promote gratitude as a desirable attribute, so people may link religiosity to expressions of gratitude.
  • Religious people tend to believe in a creator god. So when something good happens (or is seen, like a sunset), they may be more likely to respond with feelings of gratitude.
  • Lastly, religious people tend to attribute good events, but not bad ones, to the actions of a god. So that may enhance their feelings of gratitude.

To me, generalised gratitude seems like an odd concept. It seems to be tailor-made for the religious mindset. While I have plenty of things to feel glad about, I only have feelings of gratitude towards people.

Religious people are naturally going to extend those feelings towards their god. So I guess we should not be too surprised that making religious people think more about their god also increases their sense of gratitude!

_______________________________________________________________________________________
ResearchBlogging.org
Lambert, N., Fincham, F., Braithwaite, S., Graham, S., & Beach, S. (2009). Can prayer increase gratitude? Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 1 (3), 139-149 DOI: 10.1037/a0016731


Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

13 comments:

  1. Here's the thing, though. Is it the prayer that makes people grateful, or is it just that people who are grateful are more likely to pray?

    Or is it something third, like simplemindedness, that cause people both to pray and to be grateful?

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  2. And third, the after-the-fact lumping together of groups because they didn't see the result they expected is a little bit dodgy (although much worse goes on regularly, it has to be said).

    Isn't this where you have to do a Bonferroni correction?

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  3. cool study.

    1.Exclusion of non-believers is acceptable and desirable in a study like this.It controls for belief in God and can bring out the pure effect of prayer.

    2.I agree that statistical significance need not mean 'real' significance.This is not for statistical reasons.The sample size in each arm is only 50 (after combining),which is not too much to generate noise.It is for reasons regarding validity that if 0 meant sheer ingratitude and 42 meant gratitude by willing to lay one's life for the other then a difference of 1.6 somewhere in the middle would not be 'really' significant.It could be if it was on a scale of 5 or even 10.

    3.After the fact lumping of groups though looks unclean is acceptable as at least they revealed their initial design!

    It is true that you can have gratitude towards people only.Atheists loose the opportunity to grow in gratitude. Somehow it does not work if we think of nice things about people, like one of the groups in the study did.

    Reminds me of a GK Chesterton quote "If my children wake up on Christmas morning and have someone to thank for putting candy in their stocking, have I no one to thank for putting two feet in mine?"

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  4. Hrm, I had something interesting to say, but I saw something in Dheeraj's post that bothered me:

    Exclusion of non-believers is acceptable and desirable in a study like this.It controls for belief in God

    You can control for a belief in God by simply knowing which participants are believers and which aren't. Excluding non-believers entirely from the study just limits the ways you can collate the data, it doesn't increase the statistical power of the study.

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  5. I'm not really much of a pray-er so I may be wrong about this, but isn't a great deal of praying about gratitude? "Thank you Lord for X, Y, and Z..." ?

    So to the extent that pray-ers would spend more time each day thinking up things to include in their prayers that they are grateful for, couldn't the results simply be a small but significant practice or memory-rehearsal effect?

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  6. @James Sweet

    What would happen we add atheists and then remove them in analysis for getting some significance?
    One would say that that study was fudged to show that prayer is good! :-)
    Wouldn't one?
    Prayer is a meaningless thing for an atheist.His prayers are not valid.This study is well designed for bringing effect of prayer on gratitude.

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  7. Bjorn, the real issue is that it's a post-hoc analysis. What you should do is define your hypothesis, run the study, and see if it supports you hypothesis. If you start rummaging through the data after the fact, then you will probably find something eventually. But the 'p' value become meaningless. Bonferroni and other corrections won't help - they can only be used if you state in your initial hypothesis that you're going to do multiple tests.

    But, to be fair, everyone does this kind of post-hoc data mining. But the results should be thought of as 'hypothesis generating' rather than 'hypothesis testing'.

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  8. Dheeraj, many believers are 'grateful' towards god, but it's a kind of gratitude that doesn't make sense to an atheist, of course. So they are bound to score lower on this kind of gratitude test. Although the test doesn't mention god, it basically measures whether people are grateful for their circumstances. Who are you going to be grateful to, if not god? The question makes sense to a believer, but not to an atheist.

    Anyway, a bigger question is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Is it healthy to say 'I am grateful for my current situation'?

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  9. James, I think you can start with the hypothesis that prayer will only increase gratitude in believers, in which case including non-believers will just confuse the data.

    In fact, the problem with includers is that they probably won't follow the study protocol. They'd probably give up, and not pray every day for 4 weeks. So the study wouldn't be doable.

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  10. Greg, I think you're dead right. It's basically a priming effect. If you get people to think about being grateful every day, then they are more likely to say they are grateful. It would've been useful to have a control activity that got people to think about being grateful without praying, and see what effect that had.

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  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  12. Tom says it absolutely correctly.
    "Who are you going to be grateful to, if not god? The question makes sense to a believer, but not to an atheist."

    Tom asks a bigger question whether gratefulness is a good thing or a bad thing in the first place. Is it healthy to say 'I am grateful for my current situation'?

    Very true.It might be that it is not a good thing but the study does conclude that prayer makes people grateful.

    To the gut feeling for all of us humans including atheists, 'gratefulness' seems to a good quality.Is it not the reason why atheists try to undermine the effect of prayer on gratefulness citing design or analysis flaws in the study? :-)

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  13. Hi Dheeraj, I think you're missing the atheists perspective. It's not that atheists are not 'grateful'. It's that under these circumstances the concept just doesn't make sense to them.

    Asking an atheist whether they are 'grateful' for a good life is a bit like asking whether "apple + 5 = train?". It looks like a question, but it is in fact gobbledigook.

    To be more explicit, it's a category error.

    This shouldn't be misunderstood as atheists being ungrateful. Atheists can be grateful to people, of course. If people have done nice things, then I'm grateful.

    But if you ask whether I'm grateful or ungrateful to god, the answer is that I'm neither - because god doesn't exist!

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