What Science Says About 'Thoughts and Prayers'

The research is mixed.

A poster next to flowers and candles reads, "Pray 4 Las Vegas"
Chris Wattie / Reuters

After the deadliest gun attack in modern U.S. history left 59 dead and hundreds injured in Las Vegas, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, both Nevada senators, and many of their peers on the Hill took to Twitter to express—with some variation—that their “thoughts and prayers” were with the victims. Their use of the platitude, or a derivative, was not without precedent: Since the start of the legislative session on January 4, 1995, the Congressional Record identifies some 4,139 instances in which a congressperson took to the Senate or House floor to express their “thoughts and prayers.” Given that the House has averaged 138 days in session a year and the Senate 162 since 2001, this equates to close to one “thoughts and prayers” entered into the record per workday on the Hill.

Some congresspeople, notably Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, took offense to this outpouring. Echoing the sentiment expressed by President Barack Obama in 2015 that “thoughts and prayers [were] not enough” after a mass shooting in Oregon—a claim which itself echoed the appeals of many after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting and, in turn, those of still others after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, ad infinitum—Murphy tweeted, “To my colleagues: Your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers. None of this ends unless we do something to stop it.”

Academic research indicates that the “thoughts and prayers” response is a uniquely American phenomenon—in Norway, by contrast, political elites’ reactions to the 2011 mass shooting of a summer camp centered not around spiritual engagement but appealing to social cohesion and collective action. Mass gun violence is also a uniquely American phenomenon, so it is self-evident that our platitude fails to prevent tragedy. One might wonder why “thoughts and prayers” has not worn out its use.

Part of the platitude’s persistence relates to the fact that “thoughts and prayers,” as an all-encompassing and simple phrase, is easily articulated in a state of shock when other words are hard to come by. For the religious and for the many atheists who do partake in prayer, the response of prayer after tragedy is intuitive. Experiencing shock, according to Kevin Ladd, a coauthor of The Psychology of Prayer: a Scientific Approach and a professor at Indiana University South Bend, takes away the breath and limits the range of speech responses. “Most immediate expressions of tragedy are monosyllabic,” Ladd told me. “We still are not sure what type of language will allow us to interpret what has taken place, so we default back to the most central practices for us. Prayer steps in and fills a void—creates a common kind of language.”

For those that aren’t religious and do not pray, according to Ladd, the first half of “thoughts and prayers” offers a secularized alternative—much like “happy holidays” is to “merry Christmas.” It allows participation in the same communal ritual, which can compel a sense of social cohesion.

While praying itself may be a natural reaction to tragedy, broadcasting on social media that one is praying contains an element of performance. But if a tweet or Facebook post does indeed reflect an underlying genuine prayer, research shows it may affect health outcomes—for the person praying. 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.

As for the victims who are being prayed for, many studies have found a lack of discernible improvement in health outcomes. A lot of research, some government-funded, investigates the efficacy of intercessory prayer: pleas for the benefit of someone else, often with whom one does not have an explicit connection or has never met. 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. 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].”

Nonetheless, people might continue to propagate their “thoughts and prayers” because it is impossible to prove that doing so is unhelpful. As Kevin Masters, a coauthor of the meta-analysis, points out, the efficacy of prayer for those prayed for cannot be accurately studied in a scientific way. There can never be a control group: Researchers can set aside a group of patients as not to be prayed for within the experimental conditions, but there is no guarantee that someone outside the experiment isn’t praying for those patients.

Of course, Murphy’s central concern with offering “thoughts and prayers” is not that doing so is ineffective at solving health issues, but rather that prayer is offered in place of actual policy solutions. 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. Unfortunately, up to now, calling out others for doing so hasn’t been either.