Science on Religion

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God, prayer, and self-control

Adam Even AppleIt’s gonna be one of those days. Maybe it started with your morning mug of joe, piping hot and all over that freshly pressed shirt. No matter, you’re way past that now, headlong into an unrelenting spectacle of mishap and calamity when, finally…it happens. Floating down ever so gently from above, almost mocking in its graceful descent, a tiny leaf lands faintly upon your nose: the last straw. Unleashing a torrid display of accumulated frustration, you go all-out Tarantino on that little piece of foliage. If this sounds familiar, then you’ve probably been the victim of what is known as self-control depletion. But it turns out there may be hope, and especially for those who pray.

German social psychologists Malte Friese (Saarland University) and Michaela Wänke (University of Mannheim) sought to better understand self-control depletion. Recently, they published an article in Science exploring the possibility that prayer might enable us to avoid these moments of shoddy self-restraint.

Friese and Wänke begin with a model of self-control that’s very easy to grasp. According to this model, we’re each equipped with a pool of limited mental resources to distribute across whatever activities happen to require our self-control at a given time. In other words, if you imagine these resources as a large tank of water and the various activities that require self-control (mental concentration, emotional restraint, and so forth) as small buckets, then we’re constantly moving water from the tank and into whichever buckets need it most. When the tank becomes depleted, however, there are no longer enough resources to ensure self-control, and you’d better start checking the sky for falling leaves.

To test the impact of prayer on this process, Friese and Wänke subjected participants to an emotional suppression task. Participants were asked to watch a short video that others had rated as “funny” during a pretest screening. Some participants were instructed to suppress any emotions that might arise and to control their facial expressions, while others (the controls) were simply instructed to watch as they normally would. Prior to viewing the video, participants spent five minutes either in prayer or in free thought. Finally, the level of self-control remaining afterwards was measured with a Stroop test. In this test, participants are shown the name of one color, with the actual image being displayed in another – for example, the correct response to seeing the letters “r-e-d” would be “red”, even though those letters are colored blue. Basically, the participant must resist an initial impulse to say “blue” in order to correctly answer “red”.

Friese and Wänke found a substantial difference in the degree of self-control depletion between participants asked to perform free thought and those asked to pray. In the free thought group, participants who had been instructed to suppress their emotions displayed marked impairments on the subsequent Stroop test compared to those who had not suppressed emotions. For the participants who were asked to pray, on the other hand, those who had previously suppressed their emotions preformed just as well as control subjects on the Stroop test. And in line with prior research on self-control and prayer, these results did not depend upon a participant’s previously reported level of religiosity.

This study also considered a number of mediating factors that might play a role in producing the observed effect. The only factor that significantly impacted prayer’s ability to buffer self-control depletion was the extent to which a participant described prayer in terms of a social interaction. The more strongly a person felt like they were involved in a social exchange during prayer, the better that person did on a subsequent Stroop test. While Friese and Wänke urge caution when interpreting this result because of its preliminary status, they are quick to mention previous research suggesting that people actually do often interpret prayer as a form of social interaction with God and that exposures to a social setting do have the capacity to boost one's cognitive resources.

Religions have long been viewed as a source of hope and comfort in the world, and one of the ways in which this has surfaced is in the form of petitionary prayer. Friese and Wänke may have advanced our understanding of this process by shedding light upon its underlying basis in the brain. Their research suggests that prayer might help to instill hope by providing us with the cognitive resources we need to endure times of hardship and stress. And yet, while their study convincingly indicates a positive correlation between prayer and the prevention of self-control depletion, it remains to be seen whether this effect stems directly from prayer itself or if it’s mediated by other factors. Either way, the next time somebody yells “Save the Trees!,” it might be in prayer instead of protest.

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