In this case, the researchers are quick to emphasize that their studies aren’t testing divine intervention. But in three related studies, scientists at Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, and Vrije Universiteit, found that praying can help individuals “feel less angry and behave less aggressively” in response to provocative behavior.
The experiments tested the effect of prayer on the attitudes of both American and Dutch college students. In one experiment, students were asked to write an essay about an event that had made them feel angry. They were told the essay would be evaluated by an unseen partner, but in reality, all essays were returned with the comment, “This is one of the worst essays I have ever read!”
The understandably angry students were next instructed to read a newspaper story about a student with a rare form of cancer. The students were “asked to imagine how [the student] feels about what happened and how it affected her life.” Then, a random selection of the students were asked to think about the student with cancer, while the remainder were asked to pray about her for five minutes. (The students were not asked about the specific content of their thoughts or prayers.)
Afterward, the students who had been asked to pray for the cancer victim were significantly less angry about the essay than the students who had only been asked to think about the cancer victim. The decrease in anger occurred with those who prayed no matter their specific religious affiliation, church attendance, etc., although “nearly all the participants said they were Christian.”
The other experiments varied slightly, but the principle was the same: exposing at least some of the subjects to a situation or situations designed to incite anger, then asking some subjects to think about—and other subjects to pray about—a specific person or persons. Across the board, those who prayed ended up less angry and aggressive.
The effects we found in these experiments were quite large, which suggests that prayer may really be an effective way to calm anger and aggression.
Ohio State University psychologist Brad Bushman explained, “We found that prayer really can help people cope with their anger, probably by helping them change how they view the events that angered them and helping them take it less personally. The effects we found in these experiments were quite large, which suggests that prayer may really be an effective way to calm anger and aggression.”
Meanwhile, team member Ryan Bremner, a University of Michigan psychologist, suggested, “When people are confronting their own anger, they may want to consider the old advice of praying for one’s enemies.” Of course, that “old advice” is actually Christ’s command, but nonetheless we’re glad to see experimental confirmation of one of the wonderful “side effects” of prayer.
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