As disasters and tragedies stir up controversy about the relevance of “thoughts and prayers,” a University of Wyoming economist and then-UW sociologist joined forces to investigate the material value such sentiments may actually have for their intended recipients.
Linda Thunström, assistant professor of economics at UW and the study’s lead researcher, and Shiri Noy, now employed by Denison University in Ohio as an assistant professor of anthropology and sociology, said they were drawn to the idea for a serious study of “thoughts and prayers” by the conflict that has begun to accompany them.
“We think this is an important first step to understanding both how and why these gestures are so polarized,” Noy said. “Why are thoughts and prayers so popular and yet so heavily criticized? How can we understand their utility and value to people in the wake of hardship?”
Thunström and Noy’s study asked Christian and atheist or agnostic participants to attach a literal monetary value to thoughts and prayers they might have received in a difficult time. Participants were given options between receiving $5 or a prayer from a Christian stranger, then the money amount was scaled down — a participant may rather keep $5, but would be willing to give up a lesser amount in order to receive a prayer. Participants who identified as religious said they would give up an average of $4.36 to receive a prayer from a stranger — but a prayer from a priest would fetch $7.17.
The researchers agreed the most surprising result among their findings was most atheist or agnostic participants, rather than simply choosing to keep the money or being indifferent to receiving prayers, said they would ask religious individuals not to pray for them — at cost. These participants would pay out an average of $3.24 to religious individuals to prevent a prayer being said on their behalf.
“You might be somebody who doesn’t appreciate that, hence I can provide you other types of gestures — or ask if this is an appropriate response after your hardship,” Thunström said. “Ideally, it increases the understanding of the value of the gestures, and it also means that we can target them better. As a policy-maker or as a stranger who wants to support other strangers in times of hardship, you might want to consider that.”
Thunström said she and Noy have enjoyed seeing positive discussion and debate taking place in response to their findings being published, and they are excited to pursue similar ventures into little-researched territory — which may also broaden into a wider scope of religious diversity.
One such study will attempt to pin down how charitable donations might increase or decrease depending on how much an individual has thought about the recipient before donating, while another will examine how different actions, including prayer or even “sending out good vibes and positive energy,” might cause an individual to do more or be content with what they had already done.
“We have lots of different ideas, because this is a topic that has not been studied much before — which is, to me, quite surprising,” Thunström said. “These are gestures that we use on a routine basis and we have very strong feelings on what they can do for people, and still, we know very little about that.”
The study was published Sept. 16 on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America’s website.