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].”