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Recent research: 4 studies on prayer and their implications for compassion, loving-kindness & goodwill meditation practices

"If you want others to be happy, practise compassion.  If you want to be happy, practise compassion"  Dalai Lama 

I was struck by three recent research papers on intercessory prayer, and one somewhat less recent meta-analysis.  What I found most interesting about these studies is their potential relevance for meditation/prayer practices that focus on developing goodwill for others.  The somewhat less recent meta-analysis is last year's revised Cochrane review on "Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health" (abstracts & links for the four prayer studies discussed are given further down this page).  The authors objective was "To review the effects of intercessory prayer as an additional intervention for people with health problems already receiving routine health care" and they concluded " ... findings are equivocal and, although some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer, the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer".  Somewhat surprisingly the authors go on to state "We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care".  So probably the best overview of good research on the effects of intercessory prayer on the health of those prayed for concludes that there is no good evidence of an effect.  What interests me though are any potential effects on those doing the praying (or meditating) ... and also, indirectly, on those prayed for. 

I have already written fairly extensively about this.  For example, the classic paper described in "Barbara Fredrickson's recent research study on loving-kindness meditation" showed that practising goodwill meditation resulted in small increases in daily measures of positive emotions.  These increases in good feeling led to improvements in the meditators' physical, psychological & social "resources" which, in turn, led to decreased depression & greater life satisfaction.  Coming at the importance of compassionate attitudes from a different angle, the post "Recent research: egosystem & ecosystem" introduced Jennifer Crocker's important work on how kindness (in contrast to self-interest) builds good relationships with benefits for all involved.  The more recent posts "Cooperative behaviour cascades in social networks" and "Be the change you want to see in the world" demonstrate this very directly.  "Life skills for stress, health & wellbeing  ... goodwill practice" discusses practical issues involved in these kinds of meditation/prayer disciplines.

So what about the three more recent intercessory prayer papers?  Abstracts & links are further down the page.  The studies all involved the same research team, so replication would be welcomed.  The first, "Motivating change in relationships: can prayer increase forgiveness?" showed that praying for a romantic partner or a friend increased "selfless concern" for them and this led to increased feelings of forgiveness.  Here prayer (and possibly goodwill practice would do this too) seems to be increasing compassionate rather than self-image goals, as measured by Jennifer Crocker's "Compassionate/self-image goals scale" - with the many benefits this can involve for self & others.  The second paper, "Faith and unfaithfulness: can praying for your partner reduce infidelity?" found that daily prayer for one's partner decreased "extradyadic romantic behavior" and "objective observers rated participants who had been praying for their partner for 4 weeks as more committed to their romantic relationship than control participants".  And the third paper, "Invocations and intoxication: does prayer decrease alcohol consumption?" reported that "Participants assigned to pray every day (either an undirected prayer or a prayer for a relationship partner) for 4 weeks drank about half as much alcohol at the conclusion of the study as control participants".  These are fascinating findings.  As a therapist who regularly teaches goodwill practice to clients (and regularly practises it myself, including in a brief centering exercise before I see clients themselves), I'm very curious just how widespread the effects are on thoughts, feelings, relationships & behaviour.  I suspect that goodwill practice, loving-kindness meditation, compassionate mind training & intercessory prayer all overlap hugely, and that they share fascinating abilities to help both people who practise these disciplines and - indirectly - to help as well those who the people meditating/praying for relate to.

Roberts, L., I. Ahmed, et al. (2009). "Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health." Cochrane Database Syst Rev(2): CD000368.   [PubMed]          
BACKGROUND: Prayer is amongst the oldest and most widespread interventions used with the intention of alleviating illness and promoting good health. Given the significance of this response to illness for a large proportion of the world's population, there has been considerable interest in recent years in measuring the efficacy of intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health in a scientifically rigorous fashion. The question of whether this may contribute towards proving or disproving the existence of God is a philosophical question lying outside the scope of this review of the effects of prayer. This revised version of the review has been prepared in response to feedback and to reflect new methods in the conduct and presentation of Cochrane reviews. OBJECTIVES: To review the effects of intercessory prayer as an additional intervention for people with health problems already receiving routine health care. SEARCH STRATEGY: We systematically searched ten relevant databases including MEDLINE and EMBASE (June 2007). SELECTION CRITERIA: We included any randomised trial comparing personal, focused, committed and organised intercessory prayer with those interceding holding some belief that they are praying to God or a god versus any other intervention. This prayer could be offered on behalf of anyone with health problems. DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We extracted data independently and analysed it on an intention to treat basis, where possible. We calculated, for binary data, the fixed-effect relative risk (RR), their 95% confidence intervals (CI), and the number needed to treat or harm (NNT or NNH). MAIN RESULTS: Ten studies are included in this updated review (7646 patients). For the comparison of intercessory prayer plus standard care versus standard care alone, overall there was no clear effect of intercessory prayer on death, with the effect not reaching statistical significance and data being heterogeneous (6 RCTs, n=6784, random-effects RR 0.77 CI 0.51 to 1.16, I(2) 83%). For general clinical state there was also no significant difference between groups (5 RCTs, n=2705, RR intermediate or bad outcome 0.98 CI 0.86 to 1.11). Four studies found no effect for re-admission to Coronary Care Unit (4 RCTs, n=2644, RR 1.00 CI 0.77 to 1.30).Two other trials found intercessory prayer had no effect on re-hospitalisation (2 RCTs, n=1155, RR 0.93 CI 0.71 to 1.22). AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: These findings are equivocal and, although some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer,the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer. We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.

Lambert, N. M., F. D. Fincham, et al. (2010). "Motivating change in relationships: can prayer increase forgiveness?" Psychological Science 21(1): 126-132.  [PubMed] 
The objective of the current studies was to test whether praying for a relationship partner would increase willingness to forgive that partner. In Study 1 (N = 52), participants assigned to pray for their romantic partner reported greater willingness to forgive that partner than those who described their partner to an imagined parent. In Study 2 (N = 67), participants were assigned to pray for a friend, pray about any topic, or think positive thoughts about a friend every day for 4 weeks. Those who prayed for their friend reported greater forgiveness for their friend than did those in the other two conditions, even when we controlled for baseline forgiveness scores. Participants who prayed for their friend also increased in selfless concern during the 4 weeks, and this variable mediated the relationship between experimental condition and increased forgiveness. Together, these studies provide an enhanced understanding of the relationship benefits of praying for a partner and begin to identify potential mediators of the effect.

Fincham, F. D., N. M. Lambert, et al. (2010). "Faith and unfaithfulness: can praying for your partner reduce infidelity?" Journal of personality and social psychology 99(4): 649-659.   [PubMed] 
Because religion and/or spirituality is integral to the lives of a majority of the world population, we conducted 3 studies on the role of prayer in romantic relationships. Study 1 (N = 375) showed that prayer for the partner predicted lower levels of extradyadic romantic behavior over a 6-week period, over and beyond relationship satisfaction, and initial levels of extradyadic romantic behavior. In Study 2 (N = 83), we used an experimental design to show that participants assigned to pray for each day for 4 weeks engaged in lower levels of extradyadic romantic behavior during that time, compared with those who engaged in daily positive thoughts about the partner or a neutral activity. Perception of the relationship as sacred mediated the relation between experimentally manipulated prayer and later infidelity. Study 3 (N = 23) showed that objective observers rated participants who had been praying for their partner for 4 weeks as more committed to their romantic relationship than control participants. The implications of these results are then discussed. Because religion and/or spirituality is integral to the lives of a majority of the world population, we conducted 3 studies on the role of prayer in romantic relationships. Study 1 (N = 375) showed that prayer for the partner predicted lower levels of extradyadic romantic behavior over a 6-week period, over and beyond relationship satisfaction, and initial levels of extradyadic romantic behavior. In Study 2 (N = 83), we used an experimental design to show that participants assigned to pray for each day for 4 weeks engaged in lower levels of extradyadic romantic behavior during that time, compared with those who engaged in daily positive thoughts about the partner or a neutral activity. Perception of the relationship as sacred mediated the relation between experimentally manipulated prayer and later infidelity. Study 3 (N = 23) showed that objective observers rated participants who had been praying for their partner for 4 weeks as more committed to their romantic relationship than control participants. The implications of these results are then discussed.

Lambert, N. M., F. D. Fincham, et al. (2010). "Invocations and intoxication: does prayer decrease alcohol consumption?" Psychology of Addictive Behavior 24(2): 209-219.   [PubMed] 
Four methodologically diverse studies (N = 1,758) show that prayer frequency and alcohol consumption are negatively related. In Study 1 (n = 824), we used a cross-sectional design and found that higher prayer frequency was related to lower alcohol consumption and problematic drinking behavior. Study 2 (n = 702) used a longitudinal design and found that more frequent prayer at Time 1 predicted less alcohol consumption and problematic drinking behavior at Time 2, and this relationship held when controlling for baseline levels of drinking and prayer. In Study 3 (n = 117), we used an experimental design to test for a causal relationship between prayer frequency and alcohol consumption. Participants assigned to pray every day (either an undirected prayer or a prayer for a relationship partner) for 4 weeks drank about half as much alcohol at the conclusion of the study as control participants. Study 4 (n = 115) replicated the findings of Study 3, as prayer again reduced drinking by about half. These findings are discussed in terms of prayer as reducing drinking motives.

 

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