Prayer or Empathy: Which is More Likely?

The role of spirituality and religion in individuals' lives has been studied since the beginning of modern psychology. It's not been a consistent examination, nor always a useful one, but the desire to understand both why people believe in gods and how these religious beliefs can be adaptive and helpful in their lives is a relevant one, since over 70% of Americans profess religious beliefs.

The psychological study of religious beliefs and practices frequently suffers from vagueness (and a failure to operationalize concepts and variables being measured), poor research measures (surveys that have poor validity and reliability), and ill-defined hypotheses. In addition, there may also be a tendency to ask questions of religious practices that fail to consider underlying constructs that might be causing the perceived change, rather than the practice itself creating the change.

A recent study getting news and blog headlines and a brief article in the current issue of Monitor on Psychology looks at the role of prayer in mitigating anger responses. According to the Monitor article, "Saying a prayer when you feel angry enough to lash out at someone can reduce your feelings of anger as if you hadn’t been provoked at all." This is a rather simplistic sound bite for the series of three experiments that Bremner and his colleagues carried out.

Bremner, Koole, and Bushman (2011) conducted a series of experiments in which participants were provoked to anger and then ultimately asked to pray or think about another individual, either a third party not germane to the provocation or the provocateur and essentially, the participants were then assessed as to whether their anger had decreased or not.  Bremner et al. found that prayer (although prayer was not operationalized) worked better than thinking in decreasing anger.

The problem with this idea that prayer works to reduce anger is that an underlying construct that might better account for the reduction in anger is not considered in Bremner et al. Perhaps it is not prayer that lowers the anger but the deliberate evocation of empathy that reduces anger.

In a recent book, Simon Baron-Cohen addresses the tripartite structure of empathy: the cognitive aspect, the affective or emotional aspect, and the active aspect. Given that Bremner et al.'s participants were not particularly guided on how to think or pray, the central question of whether guided instructions that activate either the cognitive or the affective aspect of empathy would be effective in reducing the anger state is not addressed.

Because each individual will have his or her own interpretation of what prayer is and no instruction appears to have been given on how or what to pray, questions remain about how one might effectively use prayer (or the intentional evocation of empathy, which not-retributive prayer might be said to resemble) in times of provocation in order to calm oneself.

Bremner et al.'s study is interesting, but absolutely not definitive; it certainly shouldn't be touted as the proof that prayer wipes the anger away.

If the study of religion and spirituality from a psychological perspective is going to be of use in understanding the role of religion in individuals' lives, and perhaps more importantly, in promoting adaptive coping in individuals, then the underlying constructs that may be responsible for the effects should be examined in conjunction with the religious practices being examined in order to ensure we know which is responsible for the effect being measured.


Bremner RH, Koole SL, & Bushman BJ (2011). "Pray for those who mistreat you": effects of prayer on anger and aggression. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 37 (6), 830-7 PMID: 21421766


Anonymous said...

Very thought-provoking piece. In my own experience of prayer and meditation, it's the emotional empathy being elicited that creates a change in me, especially when I'm dealing with fear and anger.

In Judaism, prayer is primarily "impressive" rather than "expressive" -- that is, it's not about asking for change "out there," but for change inside the person praying. It's meant to bring us back to what's best in us. I have experienced this effect a great deal, especially when praying for greater compassion and lovingkindness in the world. I have no idea whether it makes any impact in the world at large, but I know for certain that it helps me steer past limiting emotions and taps the springs of compassion and lovingkindness in me.

The Buddhists have a practice of executing a "block" -- when one is angry at a person, one practices metta (lovingkindess) meditation. Clearly, that is meant open the wells of empathy.

It seems to me that at its best, all prayer has this end.

Betsy said...

Isn't that interesting! I don't think I've ever felt angry after praying.

KWombles said...

Rachel, thank you for such a thoughtful response.

As a reformed Baptist, I was privy to prayers that weren't always empathic, so I tend to keep in mind at all times that prayer is a two-edged sword--that in some places it's about vengeance and defeating the enemy and not about a state that evokes empathy and compassion for others.

At it's best, though, yes, prayer and other rituals are about placing oneself in accord with the universe and all other beings, and that is empathy at its fullest.

For researchers to narrowly focus on prayer without consideration of the underlying cognitive factors going on is to miss the boat. :)

And now to be cheeky; I can't help but think of Madea-type prayers--maybe anger is replaced with a sense of satisfaction that some whup-ass is about to commence. It's the thoughts and the direction they take--not the act of praying itself--unless one specifically defines prayer to only include that which induces empathy (and again plain-old thinking, directed so, would do that, too).