Field of Science

Does prayer make you more forgiving... and why?

Widely reported earlier this week was a study on prayer and forgiveness. It's by the same crew that gave us the study last year on prayer and gratitude, and has (broadly speaking) the same methodological concerns (it only recruited students who already pray, and uses measures that are difficult to interpret).

But, fair doos, this is an interventional study of the effects of prayer that is basically sound, and the authors deserve kudos for trying to assess this unfashionable area. So what did it show?

Well, they recruited 67 Christian students in Florida, and asked them either to pray for a friend, or to pray without specifying what for, or to think positive thoughts about their friend. They had to do this every day for 4 weeks.

Then they measured the degree of forgiveness they felt towards their friend. As the graph shows, forgiveness was greatest in the 'pray for a friend' group.

They suggest that the reason for this is that prayer creates a generalised feeling of selflessness, although this seems theoretically unlikely to me and the evidence they provide for it is rather tendentious.

So what do we know about prayer? Well, brain scans suggest that praying is much like talking to a friend. So maybe talking to a confidant about a third party helps to generate forgiveness.

Furthermore, although they didn't measure the beliefs of the participants, it's likely (given the local culture) that many of them believed in an active, personal god who can step in to change things in the world around them - including other people.

It's much easier to have forgiving thoughts about people if you think that they are going to change. If these students thought that praying for someone is sufficient to change them for the better, it seems very likely that would made them feel more forgiving.

ResearchBlogging.orgLambert, N., Fincham, F., Stillman, T., Graham, S., & Beach, S. (2009). Motivating Change in Relationships: Can Prayer Increase Forgiveness? Psychological Science, 21 (1), 126-132 DOI: 10.1177/0956797609355634

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. You said,
    They suggest that the reason for this is that prayer creates a generalised feeling of selflessness, although this seems theoretically unlikely to me

    Why is it "theoretically" unlikely? One method of Buddhist meditation is to generalize feelings of compassion and love. It is a highly useful technique. So I am curious for your theoretical basis of rejection.

    Replicating an emotion and then trying to generalize its targets seems to me (experientially) as very effective -- both for positive and negative emotions.

  2. Sabio, if they were arguing that prayer in general, or buddhist meditation in particular, had this effect, well that would make sense.

    But in fact they are arguing that praying for a specific person (but not prayer in general) increases generalised selflessness, and that this explains the increase in reported forgiveness towards that specific individual. It's that chain of logic that seems implausible to me.

  3. Ah, I think I follow.
    I think you will agree that when a person says they are "meditating", they can be doing any number of very different things with their brain. Likewise if someone says they are praying. Or even if they say they are praying for a specific person.

    And we know that internal mental exercises can change a person, no?

  4. Absolutelty. There's a huge volume of research into meditation (much more than into prayer), none of which I cover on this blog. Mostly that's because it's only tangentially related to religon, and partly because if I tried to get on top of it all I would never get out :) but the bottom line is that it has substantial effects on brain function and psychology.

  5. "fair doos", that's an expression I've never heard before. Is that a British thing?

  6. James: yes, I think it must be. meaning something between "fair enough" and "let's be fair".


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