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

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

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

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?

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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.

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“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.