Praying for abstinence

Praying for abstinence August 12, 2010

Religious people are less likely to drink heavily. However, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here. Is it that turning to god help people stay off the demon drink, or is it that hard-core party animals are less likely to be religious?

These questions crop up a lot in studies of religion, but there are a couple of ways round them. Basically, you can look at what happens over time (does being religious at the start of the year predict alcohol consumption at the end), or you can encourage people to be religious and see what happens to their drinking.

That’s what Nathan Lambert, of Florida State University, and colleagues, have done (they’ve done a couple of similar studies in the past). They took a group of students  and found that, sure enough, the religious ones were less likely to binge drink. They also showed that religiosity at the start of the semester predicted less binge drinking at the end.

Rather more interesting was that they then did a trial in which they randomized students (all of them religious believers) to two groups. One group was asked to pray every day for their friends and family (they had to pick 5). The other group was asked simply to think positive thoughts daily about their friends and family.

By the end of the study, four weeks later, the  ‘good thoughts’ group were drinking nearly twice as much alcohol as the ‘prayer’ group.

So it seems that making nominally religious people actively engage in their beliefs can discourage them from drinking. But why?

Lambert has two theories. First is that prayer may help to improve your relationships with others (that’s something Lambert has shown in an earlier study). And if relationships are stronger, then you’ll have less need to turn to drink to overcome social barriers.

His second theory is that spirituality and alcohol consumption are alternative routes to relieve the ‘burden of self’. This is the idea that, particularly in Western cultures, people are under high pressure to succeed as individuals. By turning to prayer, people may have less need to turn to the bottle.

Personally, I think something else is going on here. By making people pray every day, what you are doing is reminding people constantly of their religion. It’s called priming. And by doing that, you remind them of their cultural expectations – and also remind them that god is watching them.

In other words, you’d expect daily prayer to encourage people to conform to whatever it is they think their god wants – in this case temperance!

ResearchBlogging.orgLambert, N., Fincham, F., Marks, L., & Stillman, T. (2010). Invocations and intoxication: Does prayer decrease alcohol consumption? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24 (2), 209-219 DOI: 10.1037/a0018746

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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