Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why Believers Think Prayer Works

Christians believe that their pleas to God have a tangible effect on the real world. Why do they believe this if it isn't true (aside from the obvious answer of "their religion says so")? Even Christians themselves should be curious about the underlying reasons for belief in prayer—after all, people of other faiths think prayers to their gods are effective as well. In fact, there are quite a few reasons, all of which are quite fascinating.

1. Placebo effect: Say that a believer wants to do well on a test or run their fastest time in the 100-meter dash. If they pray for that outcome, or know that others are praying similarly, they're likely to do better than they would have otherwise, simply because they believe prayer will work. Even in cases that are beyond conscious control, such as quick recovery from an illness, the mere belief that one will recover quickly—whether due to prayer or a sugar pill—is enough to increase one's immune function and spur a faster recovery. The placebo effect may sound incredible, but it's actually one of the most powerful and well-documented psychological phenomena in existence.

2. Regression fallacy: Everyone knows that life has its ups and downs, but when are believers are most likely to pray? Naturally, they will tend to pray more when things are bad, and to pray the most when things hit rock bottom. And since this point is rock bottom, their situation can only get better from there by definition. But because the believer has just been praying so much, they will often attribute the improvement to prayer, even though things would have gotten better anyway. This idea is so simple that it's easily overlooked, but it explains a great deal.

3. Bandwagon effect: People tend to believe things because other people around them believe those things. Believers often belong to a church and are surrounded by people who believe that prayer works. Thus, they are more likely to believe the same. Even if they begin to have doubts about the efficacy of prayer, seeing the strong belief that others have in it will strengthen their own belief. Note that this self-reinforcing effect allows the belief of the entire group to be sustained, even if the belief of every individual within that group occasionally falters.

4. Wishful thinking: This is another simple yet powerful concept: people are more likely to believe things that they want to be true. The idea that a supreme being can not only hear you anywhere at any time, but can also respond to you and act upon the physical world on your behalf, is incredibly appealing. Conversely, the idea that you are often alone and powerless in the world is highly unpleasant.

5. Confirmation bias: People tend to favor information that supports their existing beliefs. This is a massive factor in understanding believers' perceptions of prayer, and it comes into play in two ways. The first is known as "selective recall." In this case, it means that believers will generally remember answered prayers and forget about unanswered ones. The more unlikely the answered prayer, the more likely it will be to stick in their minds. In this way, instances of allegedly answered prayer seem to occur more often than they really do.

The second point follows from the first: believers will tend to tell other people about answered prayers (and tend not to tell them about unanswered ones). Again, the more improbable the answered prayer, the more likely they are to tell others. Those people then tell other people, who tell others, and so on (and remember, selective recall rears its head at every step). The overall effect is that even though extraordinary examples of "answered" prayer occur only very rarely, they will tend to be heavily reported, so that such examples appear to happen relatively often.

6. Sampling bias: Believers are biased in selecting what they will pray for: they usually pray for things that are likely to happen anyway. They might pray for it not to rain during the few hours that an outdoor party or sporting event takes place. If it doesn't rain, they will interpret this as an answered prayer—even if rain was unlikely during that particular interval. On the other hand, if a family member's legs are amputated following an accident, even fervent believers probably wouldn't pray for those limbs to miraculously grow back. By limiting their prayers in this way, believers tend to get what they expect by purely ordinary means.

7. Postdiction: Among other things, this refers to reinterpreting a prediction after the fact to make it fit with the events that occurred. It's more often associated with alleged prophecies, but it applies to prayer as well. Say a believer goes on a date and prays that they will meet the love of their life, and eventually they end up being very good friends, but nothing more. Although the believer was praying about meeting their future spouse, they may consider their prayer answered—after all, they did end up "loving" this person, but in a different way. Because the criteria that believers use to judge whether they got what they "wanted" are actually much broader than they seem, prayers are more likely to be "answered" purely by chance.

8. The last resort: "God answers all prayers, but sometimes he answers 'no'." This is the one explanation that will never, ever fail. It's completely unfalsifiable—that is, as long as believers put stock in this answer, they will never even consider the possibility that there might not be anyone listening.

The idea is that God only answers prayers that align with his will. There are multiple problems with this. First, it seems to contradict certain verses in the Bible. Matthew 7:7 says, "Ask and it will be given to you." John 14:14 says, "You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." There are no qualifications for these statements, and the context doesn't seem to change the meaning. Believers may argue that Jesus meant to say "I will do it if it's God's will," but that's certainly not what he actually says.

Second, there is the problem of evil issue. Famine, disease, and horrible disasters occur regularly, in spite of prayer and for no apparent reason. Innocent children are forced to become soldiers and sex slaves, again in spite of prayer. Why wouldn't it align with God's will to answer these prayers? In such cases believers can only appeal to omniscience, assuming without evidence that God has some unknown reason for allowing these things to happen.

Finally, If Christian believers still think this last-resort explanation is a good one, I must point out that Muslims, Hindus, and other believers undoubtedly think the same way. Do Christians think these people are justified in thinking that their gods answer prayer in this way, even though this reasoning will probably cause them to continue believing in their false gods? If Christians are justified and other believers aren't, why the double standard? The knee-jerk response is "because we're right," but this is mere assertion—and one that those of other faiths could again use just as easily.

Given the many cognitive biases I have covered here, it's not surprising that believers think prayer is effective. The placebo effect, the regression fallacy, the bandwagon effect, wishful thinking, confirmation bias, selection bias, postdiction, and the ever-lurking last resort explanation all work in concert to form the potent illusion of a supernatural phenomenon. We have many excellent explanations for why prayers may appear to be answered. The onus is on believers to show that they truly are.

Note: It's worth mentioning that we actually have scientific evidence that prayer doesn't work. In the most rigorous experiments on the subject, sick individuals who don't know they are being prayed for (to rule out the placebo effect) fare no better than those who aren't being prayed for at all. Faced with this information, believers now have an even greater hill to climb if they are to show that prayer really is somehow effective.


  1. This article is awesome!

  2. Thanks so much. It's always gratifying to know that my writing is useful to others.

  3. I'm linking to it, thanks.

  4. If I recall, the sick people in the study you mentioned who were being prayed for actually did slightly *worse* than the people who were not being prayed for at all.

  5. John,
    What a pleasant surprise! Thanks a lot. Big fan of your book series, by the way.

    There have been multiple studies like this, but you're correct; that has definitely happened at least once.

  6. What a brilliant post, thanks for linking to it John!

  7. Great article. I've written about this too. I like to point out (you touched on this in #8) that the common truism among believers is that "God always answers prayers. But sometimes His answer is yes. Sometimes it is no. And sometimes it is wait."

    This is simply anthropomorphizing all possible results. Positive, negative, and null are interpreted as the intentional actions of a supernatural agent.

  8. Great post. Asking permission to translate to (Brazilian) Portuguese and posting on blog/FB. Surely will cite original source.

  9. shreddakj,
    Thanks so much.

    Very well said.

    Absolutely, go right ahead. I'm glad this essay is being so well received.

  10. Loved how concise this post was. Packed with information. An excellent list. Posted a link on my teesey weensey boring personal blog so that I will have it to refer back to.

    Thanks, Tim.

  11. I love this and posted it to my facebook page. It goes right in line with my book I wrote - Sagod - What I have to Say by Theodore Deacon

  12. Excellent, three thumbs up! That's two real thumbs, and one imaginary one, because it's too late at night for me to fantasize two imaginary thumbs, so one will have to do. But seriously, I wish I would have read this sooner, back when I was still a believer.

  13. "It's worth mentioning that we actually have scientific evidence that prayer doesn't work."

    Remember though, that you cannot rely on scientific studies of prayer because God could be stubborn and say "Wait, those darn humans. They think they can find me that easy? I will not get involved with healing these people because then I might be exposed. "

  14. @ curious cuber,

    Yes, God, the same today, yesterday, and forever, seems to have changed his outlook from what it was when Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, or when agreeing to be tested by Gideon. Now you're not supposed to test God. Immensely convenient for the purveyors of faith. Sorry for using the F word.

  15. To chicken to approve a post that is contrary to your beliefs, eh?

  16. I am going to test the power of prayer, scientifically. I will buy a lottery ticket and pray that I win. If it works I send you a postcard from Rio telling you so and never again will I doubt the power of prayer. If it doesn't work, then I think I have proven that prayer doesn't work. Of course God may have just said "nfw".

  17. I think prayer can work due to our causal bodies. We have three bodies.

  18. Anon,
    Er, all comments are currently set to be posted automatically. I haven't shot down any posts. If you have something negative to say, by all means say it.

    I have no idea what that means.

  19. That we have three bodies explains a lot. Gross/Subtle/Causal. If and when prayer could or does work, I think it is based on the causal [subtle synchronicity].

    There is a mutual resonance or morphogenetic resonance around group belief in action. The TM study is a good example. http://www.alltm.org/pages/crime-arrested.html. I am not saying that those statistics are absolutely true, I wasn't there; but it is intriguing.

    I do think petitionary prayer is bogus as your article suggests. I also think that even spirituality, in all its definitions is questionable - as even existing. There is just natural - a spectrum - yet natural. Supernatural is meaningless ultimately. I also think karma and reincarnation [and most every other ethnocentric religious belief] are manifestations of man's need to feel consoled.

    That is what religion is, one big consolation, when contingency is the fluid nature of being [would I be me if a different sperm fertilized the ovum]. Did someone pray for that sperm to be the one?

    I do like the content of your article. It didn't change my views on this topic; I agreed with its conclusions before reading it. I did pick up some terms for why folks still believe in prayer when it clearly is a step in the growing up process, but not where we stop when trying to understand this world.

    This box was hard to write in, even after I stretched it.

  20. Hi, I found the list fascinating and well written. I have been a skeptic for most of my 45 years, but I would like your explanation on 2 events, for which I cannot offer proof, except that I wouldn't offer them otherwise. The first is that one of my children suffered from horrible worts, something that the many doctors we tried could not help. Then, we allowed a friend who is a "believer" to pray for her, and she awoke the next day without worts. She has never had them again. Is this the placebo affect, and if so, are our bodies/ minds that powerful?
    The second event occurred when I agreed to attend a "service" if you will, and, what seems to be a stereotypical event occurred, except that this time I knew the party involved on a personal level. A woman that I knew personally could not walk due to injury from a car crash some ten years back. During this service, she was prayed for, and to my shock, she got up, walked out, and has never needed a wheelchair since. This was not some "healing service", it was just a typical Christian gathering, there was no visiting minister, no fanfare, no television, no offering, non of the "stuff" that we typically see.
    I can't explain it, and I don't see anything on your list that explains it, unless again you are crediting the placebo affect for this event. I'm not arguing one way or the other, I'm just trying to grasp what I saw.

  21. gahloot,

    Thanks for your questions. Just so you know, this isn't necessarily meant to be an exhaustive list of all the reasons prayer seems to work; there may be others I've missed and even more that science has yet to discover. Also, it's tough for me to help you understand what you experienced since I wasn't there to experience it myself and have no knowledge of the details, but I'll do my best.

    First, the warts. The placebo effect applies in a huge variety of cases (physical maladies included), and seems to be especially potent in children. But the recovery time seems too sudden for that to be the sole factor. You said that you visited several doctors who were unable to help, so perhaps one of their treatments merely took longer than expected to take effect. A bit of research tells me that acidic treatments remove dead skin and cause warts to fall off; this might create the illusion of sudden rather than gradual healing.

    Second, the car injury. It's hard to say how impressive this is without knowing the true extent of the woman's impairment. Not everyone who uses a wheelchair absolutely requires one—they may use one only in situations that require extended travel. She also may have been undergoing physical therapy for those ten years. Perhaps the "healing" just gave her the extra rush of adrenaline and confidence she needed to try walking on her own in public. Following this, she may even have felt pressured to continue walking on her own, lest it appear that she hadn't had enough faith.

    Another thing to consider—and don't take this the wrong way, as it applies to everyone, myself included—is that human memory is highly fallible. We're prone to misremembering and rewriting various details of events. For example, was your daughter completely without warts the next day, or were they just noticeably improved? Did the injured woman walk effortlessly, or with difficulty?

    I may not have laid your questions to rest here. However, careful scrutiny of the alternative, supernatural explanations reveal them as woefully inadequate and arbitrary. For example, why would God heal something like warts but ignore the thousands of children who die of starvation each day? Why would the effect disappear whenever we study it carefully? If prayer can heal, why don't believers come forward to claim James Randi's $1 million prize? And of course, we have a lengthy track record of discovering natural explanations for apparently supernatural phenomena, so even if we can't say with certainty how something occurs now, there's a good chance we'll be able to eventually.

  22. Excellent post! It was precisely this line of logical thinking that convinced me my prayers were in vain, and ultimately led to my leaving the faith. I think the fact that I conceived of all of these points independently speaks to how common sense this *should* be to everyone. But then again, some people need to be provoked to think! Thanks again!

  23. I have had my prayers answered and witnessed the instant healing of my dying child. I believe we all live by the grace of God and that life itself is a gift. Why do people think they can control the creator of the universe? I serve God in loving others. Selfishness is not rewarded. By not believing in God you are free to believe you have all the answers yourself. I dont but my personal relationship with Jesus gives me joy and strenght and makes perfect sense of this messed up world.

  24. The Bible is full of people who are shown particular favor by God while others have their heart hardened by him. Answers to prayers could be handed out in the same way. Their may be chosen among us that receive God's counsel and answers to their prayers while the rest of us are but extras in a play. At the end of the story a few go to the party in heaven and the rest of us go to the barbecue. And so goes the myth genre.

  25. Great article! It's so difficult to understand why people buy into prayer with out psychology explanations. This article was a great break down of that psychology.
    The tone is very friendly too. I wouldn't worry about offending some theist friends when having them read this.

  26. Excellent format. Correct in all ways, of course. I do often fantasize of a civilization without religion. Imagine the humanity. People taking resposibility for their own actions. Can't blame it on God or the Devil. No sacrifices, no false info. Ahhh..to dream.