Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

UCare generously supports MinnPost’s Second Opinion coverage; learn why.

No scientific evidence that ‘thoughts and prayers’ have an effect on healing

REUTERS/Mike Blake
Balloons flying near a "Pray for Las Vegas" message along Las Vegas Boulevard.

After each mass shooting in the United States, politicians, pundits and the public take to the airwaves and social media to offer their “thoughts and prayers” for the victims. They did so last week after 58 people were killed and hundreds injured in the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Speaking on behalf of President Donald Trump and his administration, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted, “Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by the senseless tragedy in Las Vegas.” Many members of Congress offered similar sentiments, including Nevada’s Democratic senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, who said in a released statement, “My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed and wounded in last night’s vicious and senseless attack outside the Mandalay Bay Resort.”

Yet, the platitude is wearing thin with a growing number of people — in Congress and out. As Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., tweeted, “This senseless violence must end — thoughts and prayers are simply not enough. We must act to prevent this from happening again.” 

No benefits for the recipients

She’s right, of course. “Thoughts and prayers” are not going to prevent another mass murder. But, setting that issue aside (for a moment), what about the actual professed purpose of all those thoughts and prayers — to lead to better health outcomes for the injured victims?

As reporter Ben Rowen explains in a recent article for the Atlantic magazine, quite a few studies, including some government-funded ones, have investigated the power of intercessory prayer (prayer on the behalf of others). But none has found any good evidence that it offers any measurable health benefits for the people who are being prayed for.

“A decade-long study of over 1,800 cardiovascular patients found that complications arose for the people prayed for within the experiment at nearly identical levels to those not prayed for,” he writes. “A meta-analysis published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that across 14 different studies on the topic there was “no discernible effect for IP [intercessory prayer].”

Indeed, the only people prayer seems to help feel better are those who are doing the praying. Writes Rowen:

A longitudinal analysis of the health of those praying, or engaged in formal religious gatherings, post-9/11 found that individually practiced spirituality was associated with more positive emotional states. Attending group religious gatherings was, on top of this, associated with fewer new mental ailments and fewer intrusive thoughts about the tragedy.

The paper’s author, Daniel McIntosh, is careful not to draw any causal inference from the data, but the association between mental-health outcomes and praying may expose the persistence of “thoughts and prayers”: There’s a positive-feedback loop for the person offering the platitude.

Interestingly, public outpourings of “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting are a distinctively American reaction.

“In Norway, by contrast, political elites’ reactions to the 2011 mass shooting of a summer camp [which resulted in 69 deaths] centered not around spiritual engagement but appealing to social cohesion and collective action,” Rowen points out.

“Mass gun violence is also a uniquely American phenomenon,” he adds, “so it is self-evident that our platitude fails to prevent tragedy.”

Not enough

Of course, the concern of Gillibrand and others about offering “thoughts and prayers” is not that it doesn’t provide any health benefits, but that it is used as a substitute for policy solutions to gun violence. Writes Rowen:

There is no logical necessity between praying and not pursuing gun-control policies, but recent history has shown that, in practice, prayer has not been followed up by this kind of policy action. Part of this, though certainly not all of it, has to do with demographic overlap between those who pray and those who oppose gun control. Religious people as a whole — those more likely to offer prayers in the wake of tragedy — are also more likely to own guns than those who aren’t religious. Although many who support gun control also offer “thoughts and prayers,” and although many who are religious support gun-control measures, it’s not altogether surprising that one could simultaneously believe in the efficacy of “thoughts and prayers” and firmly oppose gun-policy-based solutions to mass shootings.

“Crucially, recent history has shown that offering ‘thoughts and prayers,’ alone, is not enough,” he adds. “Unfortunately, up to now, calling out others for doing so hasn’t been either.”

FMI: You can read Rowen’s article on the Atlantic website.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/10/2017 - 09:52 am.

    “Feel good”

    …platitudes likely do precisely as Mr. Rowen has suggested. My own mantra in this context is a line from the “old” New Republic magazine, a line that’s now 17 years old, but as relevant in the current moment as it was then: “…a politician’s values are only discernible through their application in policy. Moral action takes knowledge and effort; intention is not enough.” — The New Republic, October 30, 2000

    This seems worth highlighting, especially in the context of repeated mass murder, and the sometimes sincere statements of thoughtful political leaders of both parties, but especially, in the current polarized political climate, for Democrats. It’s not enough to point out the hypocrisy, not to mention the inhumanity, of their Republican colleagues whose zealotry regarding the 2nd Amendment apparently knows no sensible or moral bounds. Democrats let themselves off the hook (and the public, so far, allows them to continue to do so) by condemning Republican and “conservative” obeisance to the NRA and a particular, narrow interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.

    Condemnation without specific policy proposals is morally and intellectually dishonest. “Look! See how concerned and distraught we are over the recent murder(s)?” I’d suggest that statements saying or implying as much (the usual “thoughts and prayers”) are meaningless unless the elected officials who have the authority to do something about those murders actually use that authority to…do something about them.

    Understanding that, in the current political climate, the chances of changing the 2nd Amendment are zero, the interpretation of the Amendment usually used by the NRA and gun rights advocates is NOT the only one that can be defended on logical and/or legal grounds. It should not be an impossible task, and at least in the minds of several people I know, it isn’t an impossible task, to create regulations that would have the effect of substantially reducing access to firearms and ammunition without prohibiting ownership in a manner that’s flagrantly unconstitutional.

    The comparison that seems the most common-sense-based is that of gun ownership and operating an automobile. Both can be used for legitimate recreational purposes, and both can just as easily be used to kill someone. At present, the first requires nothing but the purchase price and a background check, with the latter often not completed if it’s a “private” sale. In contrast, obtaining a driver’s license requires registration with the state, proof of at least minimal operating competence, passing a written test of related state laws, periodic renewal, often involving re-testing of knowledge and competence, and fees paid for both the license and the automobile itself. Simply requiring the same kinds of standards for both would go far to bring gun ownership into a spotlight where it would be harder for the public to ignore when regulations were flouted or ignored.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 10/10/2017 - 10:04 am.

    Was this a pro gun control or

    anti faith article?? For those of us who believe in God, we will always offer prayers when anyone is hurting. For those who believe in more gun control please give me a “new law” (don’t enforce current laws) that can stop a mad man from killing someone? All the laws I hear being thrown around would not have stopped the Vegas shootings.

    • Submitted by Cameron Parkhurst on 10/10/2017 - 11:22 am.

      A law prohibiting access to the types of weapons used

      would have stopped the Vegas killings.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/10/2017 - 11:51 am.

        Or at least reduced their number

        by an order of magnitude.
        There is a clearly demonstrated relationship between the availability of firearms and the number of shooting deaths.

        • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/10/2017 - 04:33 pm.

          Oddly enough, that is not true.

          Paddock spent a bundle on high buck semi-autos, along with at least one quality scope, as well as a couple of novelties known as bump stocks.

          Anyone that knows anything about bump stocks (I’ve tried one), knows they are a joke. Yes, it allows the rifle to spew bullets at an accelerated rate (still not near true auto fire, but I digress). But it also makes accurate placement impossible. You must hold the weapon in a very constricted, unnatural posture for the gizmo to work.

          I’m willing to bet that the majority of wounds were the result of bullets ricocheted off the ground. He was simply firing into densly occupied space.

          We should all thank God that nut didn’t spend his money on one rifle, a quality scope, and the training and range time to become proficient. The death toll would have been doubled if he had.

          But, once again, facts are not useful to the leftist narritive, so here we are.

          • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/10/2017 - 08:50 pm.


            For someone who seems to place some value on facts, your response to Paul Brandon is curiously lacking in them.

            The association between firearm availability and firearm deaths is not only ipso facto logical, it’s borne out by crime statistics in most industrialized countries outside the United States — countries where access to firearms is more strictly limited than it is here.

            According to what I’ve read, Paddock had nearly two dozen rifles with him, and about a dozen bump stocks. Calling them “novelties” does nothing to diminish their effectiveness at increasing the rate of fire of a normal semi-auto rifle, and given the number of bump stocks Paddock had with him, rate of fire was apparently important to him. The “constricted position” imposed by their use was apparently not detrimental to Paddock’s goal of inflicting as much death and injury as possible in a relatively short time. With that in mind, I find myself wondering: What’s your point?

            I’d guess that your assertion regarding ricochet wounds might be correct, but I note that you provided no facts to support it. Even if EVERY wound was the result of a ricochet, it doesn’t negate the scope and malevolence of the crime committed. “Simply” firing into a crowd is no less savage because he lacked the time and sophistication to deliver a kill shot every time from 500 yards at night.

            Given range time and training, Mr. Paddock would still have had considerable difficulty killing 58 people and wounding 489 (the most recent figures I could find) if his equipment consisted of a single “quality” rifle and scope combination. Your assertion that the death toll would have doubled is…um…to be polite, it’s problematic. Paddock fired on the crowd for 10 minutes, or 600 seconds. Given that time frame, even with a high-quality semi-auto, he’d have had to hit someone (as opposed to “merely” a ricochet) virtually every second for 10 minutes straight — a feat that no sniper could hope to equal, and few machine-gun operators in a wartime situation could manage. If you know of exceptions, I’d be pleased to know about them.

            It’s not “the leftist narrative” that’s fact-free in this instance.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/10/2017 - 01:33 pm.

      Prayer vs action

      There is a reason that our country is alone among industrialized nations when it comes to gun violence. The evidence that gun control limits gun violence is overwhelming.

      You probably didn’t need a study to tell you that prayer is completely worthless. But the article points out the difference between people: those who want to stop something terrible from happening, and those who want to do absolutely nothing.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 10/10/2017 - 06:00 pm.

      “Thoughts and prayers”

      The religious equivalent of E-cards…

  3. Submitted by Kathie Noga on 10/10/2017 - 02:49 pm.

    No Scientific Evidence on Prayer or Healing

    The author of this article is not familiar with the studies of Dr. Larry Dossey who did a prayer study on patients who were released from the hospital. The study included people who prayed for people being released from the hospital. These individuals were from various spiritual traditions. A group was prayed for healing and another group was not prayed for healing. The group which was prayed for recovered 2 to 3 times faster than the group which was not prayed for. Sometimes people do not know about research which opposes their view points. I am trained in Reiki and Qigong, forms of healing. I know of people who are helped there is a study done by the Mayo Clinic done on the healing work of Master Lin, who is a Qigong Master. They found that certain patients were healed with doing Qigong. Those in pain and with depression were helped the most.

    • Submitted by Leisa Meeuwen-Ristuben on 10/12/2017 - 07:17 am.

      About Dossey’s study

      Would you care to give us some insight into the methodology Dossey used (how many participants there were in his studies, how long each study lasted, when they were conducted, any other demographic information available)? When I search for his studies, I’m only seeing books and no journal publications, which makes me hesitant. I’m not sure if I want to buy his books to glean anything about how his studies were done, so any information would be useful in my decision making process (as I didn’t find the study information I was looking for in the book reviews).

  4. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/10/2017 - 09:38 pm.

    First of all, according to Mother Jones, about 800 people died in mass shootings in the last 35 years. That amounts to fewer than 25 people per year or less than 0.1 person per day, which is negligible compared to actual 27 persons per day who die from guns. In other words, mass shootings kill relatively very few people so writing about gun control in conjunction with mass shootings doesn’t make sense.

    Second, there is no correlation between gun ownership, strictness of gun laws, and murder rate, so again, implying that if only we emulate those countries, we would have the same result is illogical.

    And finally, it may be helpful to know where most of America’s murders take place:,

    So obviously, all cries about gun control after mass shootings will help about as much as thoughts and prayers and are proposed just to feel good (or to score political points, which is much worse). By the way, doing things to just feel good is a very liberal idea – otherwise why do they want to rename streets and take down century old statues?

Leave a Reply