Self control is a depletable resource. Struggle to maintain your self control in one task, and you’ll find it harder to resist temptation in the next one.
There are things that you can do to blunt this effect, so that you can maintain your self control for longer. Get yourself motivated, do some meditation, or simply knock back some glucose.
But what about prayer?
Malte Friese (Saarland University, Germany) and Michaela Wänke (University of Mannheim, also Germany) recruited 79 students to find out. Half were Christian, 14 atheists, 10 agnostics, 14 were adherents of other religions.
Basically the set up was that their subjects were asked to spend 5 minutes either to pray or to think freely about anything they wanted. Then, after an hour, they did a task designed to deplete their self control.
Then they did a Stroop colour-word test. This is where you see colour names written (e.g. blue, red) but the text is the ‘wrong’ colour. In other words, the word ‘blue’ is written in red ink. You have to say what the ink colour is, not the word.
It’s something you have to concentrate really hard on to get right, and exert self-control to damp down your instinctive response.
So, what happened?
Well, as the graphic shows, people how laughed freely made fewer errors. So did people who suppressed laughter – so long as they prayed first. But the error rate shot up in those who suppressed their laughter and didn’t pray before hand.
The odd thing was that the effect was the same in atheists as it was in believers.
It’s a really peculiar result. My first thought was that those who prayed first found it easier to suppress their laughter (maybe they were more tranquil). But in fact the two groups found equally difficult to suppress laughter, and reported similar moods.
The investigators speculate that it might be that prayer encourages a deeper kind of social interaction – participants in the prayer group were more likely to say that they had tried to get in touch with or talk to someone else.
Alternatively, it could be that people who prayed were motivated to work harder at the task (perhaps to live up to the expectations or others. Other research has found that subliminal priming about ‘god’ makes people work longer trying to complete impossible tasks.
Whatever the explanation, as Friese and Wänkepoint out, it’s probably not related to supernatural belief per se.
We would like to stress that the point this study tries to make is that praying can at least temporarily prevent self-control depletion to unfold. The point is not that praying triggers a process that only praying can trigger. Quite the opposite, plausibility and the mediation analysis suggest that various other activities could lead to similar findings (e.g., talking to a human being).
So, if prayer does improve self control, its seems as though it does it by hooking into a regular activity. Quite what, that activity is, we don’t know!
Friese, M., & Wänke, M. (2014). Personal prayer buffers self-control depletion Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 56-59 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.11.006