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A recent study examined whether “thoughts and prayers” are substitutes for or complements to material help.

“Do you have a dollar? I’m out of singles.”

A good, serious Catholic, my mother wanted to be sure she had something to throw into the collection basket before we left for Advent Mass. After dutifully opening my wallet, I told her that no, unfortunately, I had no singles. The smallest bill I had was a five. Sorry. Out of luck this week.

The parish really seems to have enough money anyway, Mom. Maybe you can give a little extra next week. In the meantime, just offer up a prayer. She was okay with that. On the way to church, I wondered: is that really the “price” of prayer? A measly buck?

Economic “Substitution”

In an interesting September working paper, University of Wyoming assistant economics professor Linda Thunström describes a study of hers that does find a quantifiable “substitution effect” of prayer, in fact. Turns out that prayer “crowds out” donations, according to the economist’s study. Apparently, a “price” can be put on prayer for the giver, and a “penalty” from it for the receiver.

Thunström’s “Thoughts and prayers—Do they crowd out donations?” actually examines if both thoughts and prayers “are substitutes or complements to material help,” according to the paper.

“Thoughts increase salience of donation recipients’ well-being” in the mind of the potential giver, which unambiguously increases donations.

“Prayers generate two opposing effects—the act of praying decreases donations if the donor perceives prayers to directly improve the recipient’s well-being, but it increases donations if praying makes the recipient’s well-being more salient to the donor. Crowding out occurs if the perceived substitution effect dominates the salience effect.”

Specifically, in Thunström’s experiment, religious and non-religious subjects are offered to make donations to hurricane Harvey victims via the American Red Cross. In the baseline treatment, subjects are offered to donate to the hurricane Harvey victims. In the other treatments, subjects are asked either to take a moment to think about the victims, or to pray (this treatment entails religious subjects only), before they are given the opportunity to donate.

“Our results,” Thunström writes, “strongly suggest that the act of praying is a substitute for material help, i.e., prayers crowd out donations.” Out of luck; a perceived penalty. “We do not find any impact on donations from taking a moment to think of the hurricane victims.”

Mean donations from those in the baseline-treatment group were $1.87, mean donations from those in the group asked to think about the hurricane victims before they donate were $2.16, and mean donations from those in the group of Christians asked to pray for the victims before they give were $1.23.

Religious Intent

Generally, Thunström’s finding sure seems to make some sense, rationally and religiously. People like my mother who pray presumably do “perceive prayers to directly improve the recipient’s well-being,” as Thunström recognizes in the paper. They’re worth something. People who pray probably wouldn’t put a numeric price on them, though an economist certainly can.

And so can an actual or would-be recipient, of course. But hell, in this season of Advent preparation, consider taking the spiritually well-intentioned prayer, anyway. Pay the 64-cent economic “penalty” (about which you’ll likely never know, in any case).

This Christmastime, got a prayer in your wallet? I’m out of singles, and it might be worth something.

(Hat tip to National Affairs’ great daily “Findings” page by Kevin Lewis, who included the Thunstrӧm paper on a recent compilation.)

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