Field of Science

Praying for abstinence

Religious people are less likely to drink heavily. However, there's a chicken-and-egg problem here. Is it that turning to god help people stay off the demon drink, or is it that hard-core party animals are less likely to be religious?

These questions crop up a lot in studies of religion, but there are a couple of ways round them. Basically, you can look at what happens over time (does being religious at the start of the year predict alcohol consumption at the end), or you can encourage people to be religious and see what happens to their drinking.

That's what Nathan Lambert, of Florida State University, and colleagues, have done (they've done a couple of similar studies in the past). They took a group of students  and found that, sure enough, the religious ones were less likely to binge drink. They also showed that religiosity at the start of the semester predicted less binge drinking at the end.

Rather more interesting was that they then did a trial in which they randomized students (all of them religious believers) to two groups. One group was asked to pray every day for their friends and family (they had to pick 5). The other group was asked simply to think positive thoughts daily about their friends and family.

By the end of the study, four weeks later, the  'good thoughts' group were drinking nearly twice as much alcohol as the 'prayer' group.

So it seems that making nominally religious people actively engage in their beliefs can discourage them from drinking. But why?

Lambert has two theories. First is that prayer may help to improve your relationships with others (that's something Lambert has shown in an earlier study). And if relationships are stronger, then you'll have less need to turn to drink to overcome social barriers.

His second theory is that spirituality and alcohol consumption are alternative routes to relieve the 'burden of self'. This is the idea that, particularly in Western cultures, people are under high pressure to succeed as individuals. By turning to prayer, people may have less need to turn to the bottle.

Personally, I think something else is going on here. By making people pray every day, what you are doing is reminding people constantly of their religion. It's called priming. And by doing that, you remind them of their cultural expectations - and also remind them that god is watching them.

In other words, you'd expect daily prayer to encourage people to conform to whatever it is they think their god wants - in this case temperance!

ResearchBlogging.orgLambert, N., Fincham, F., Marks, L., & Stillman, T. (2010). Invocations and intoxication: Does prayer decrease alcohol consumption? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24 (2), 209-219 DOI: 10.1037/a0018746

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


  1. I like the priming idea but I have just watched a video of Luther Martin's talk in which he runs a very interesting line of argument. I suggest you have a look at:

    Konrad Talmont-Kaminski

  2. (1) I love when experiments are done. But when they are done, and we have a little more evidence, authors then suggest theories as if tagging them on to the study give their untested theory more weight. Heck, I see preachers do this -- they preach something the choir loves and then throw on a little something at the end that is doubtful but he wants them to embrace.

    (2) I "like" Lambert's two theories and I really "like" your priming theory. Can't I have all three. Oooops, we'd have to test them, wouldn't we?

    (3) Conrad's suggested lecture may be interesting but this guy's stuffy intellectulism with long-sentences and crowding complex allusions in one sentence is a turn off. He only breaks into normal talk with his few jokes. But I am sure his listeners eat it up. I'll have to listen another time when I am in the mood to hear through that and distill this cacophony of ideas. I can then outline the simple things he is trying to say. "Deep History" has got to be easier to say than what he is doing. But I am sure the work will be worth it. It sounds interesting, though laborious.

  3. Interesting paper and experiments. Have to read more on this but the second theory, as well as the priming idea, sounds more plausible.
    On a side note, when I recollect my university days and binge drinking, I find that my nonreligious friends' behaviour was more driven by their carpe diem attitude. Mine, I believe, was more dictated by an awareness of the detrimental effects of alcohol and disliking the results of a heavy hangover.

  4. I got through the first 20 mins of Luther Martin's talk. It is quite hard going - these kind of lectures where people read aloud from their notes seem to be quite common in the social sciences, but I find myself wishing I just had the paper to read!

    I think that drinking behaviour is heavily cultural. Certain sports (Rugby, rowing) seem to be particularly associated with binge drinking. I've heard it proposed that it is a kind of fitness display. You advertise your robustness by your ability to cope with large quantities of alcohol. Cigarette smoking also.


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