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Scientists Find One Source of Prayer’s Power

Communing with a higher power increases self-control
Folding hands over a bible



iStock/kjekol

The religious find strength through God; this we know. But a new study conducted by Prof. Malt Friese and Michaela Wanke suggests that even non-believers can get in on the action. In a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they present evidence showing how and why prayer might increase anyone’s ability to resist temptation. Though we can all agree that to do so requires self-control, the authors propose that the source of such control might not be supernatural. Instead, it might come from something more earthly. Something accessible to even the most devoted atheist: social connection.

The authors ground their study of prayer’s power in something called the “strength model” of self-control. The strength model suggests that our cognitive resources, like our physical resources, are limited. Going for a 1 mile jog would be incredibly difficult right after you’ve gone for a 30 mile jog, and resisting even the smallest temptation can be incredibly difficult if you’ve just spent an hour resisting larger ones. We run out of gas. So, how do we replenish these cognitive resources, or even increase our cognitive “endurance”? Gatorade and pasta? Researchers have, in all seriousness, found that ingestion of glucose can indeed increase self-control, but the scientists here proposed that prayer might be another means through which individuals protect themselves from breakdowns of will. Indeed, past work had already suggested such a relationship, showing that priming participants with words related to religion (e.g God, divine) buffered them against the effects of cognitive depletion.

The authors made use of two experimental paradigms to test the efficacy of prayer in preventing cognitive depletion. The first, called an emotion-suppression task, simply asked participants to watch a funny video but stifle all emotional responses, verbal and non-verbal, to the content. This requires a good amount of cognitive energy to pull off successfully. The second, called a stroop task, asked participants to indicate the ink color of various words flashed to them on a computer screen. The trick is that the words spell the names of various colors that are either consistent or inconsistent with the ink they are to identify. Check it out here. You’ll find that the inconsistent word/ink items are harder to respond to than the consistent items. Researchers have found that after cognitive depletion, this task becomes even harder.  So, the authors had an elegant methodological question: will people who pray be able to avoid the depleting effects of emotion suppression and not show a deficit on the stroop task? In other words, will prayer give them the cognitive strength to perform well on both these challenging tasks?

Indeed it did. Participants who were asked to pray about a topic of their choosing for five minutes showed significantly better performance on the stroop task after emotion suppression, compared to participants who were simply asked to think about a topic of their choosing. And this effect held regardless of whether participants identified as religious (70 percent) or not.

Why? The authors tested several possible explanations, but found statistical support for only one: people interpret prayer as a social interaction with God, and social interactions are what give us the cognitive resources necessary to avoid temptation. Past research has found that even brief social interactions with others can promote cognitive functioning, and the same seems to hold true for brief social interactions with deities.

This does not rule out the possibility that prayer has other effects on resisting temptation, and the spiritually inclined could see the hand of God as another causal factor here. But as the holidays approach, it reminds us all of where we derive so much of our day-to-day strength. Interacting and connecting with the people around us.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. Gareth is also the series editor of Best American Infographics, and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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