Study: Not everybody wants thoughts and prayers

Researchers probe reactions after disasters

By Allen Kim, CNN
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A study examines reactions to offers of "thoughts and prayers" following disasters.

LARAMIE, Wyo. - Thinking of sending your "thoughts and prayers" to those affected by tragedy or a natural disaster? Well, not everyone wants them.

While Christians value these gestures from religious people, some atheists and agnostics would pay money to avoid them, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers focused on more than 400 residents in North Carolina following Hurricane Florence's destruction in 2018. The deadly storm caused severe flooding, with wind and water damage totaling about $24 billion, according to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

"The idea came from the mere observation of how frequently these gestures are used ... and yet how controversial they seem to be, as shown by the heated debate in the US about the value of thoughts and prayers in the wake of disasters," said Linda Thunström, an economist at the University of Wyoming who co-authored the study. "As a result, we wanted to find out how people actually value these frequently used gestures."

Religious participants identified as Christian and believed in God, and nonreligious participants either denied or were unsure of God's existence.

Since there is no monetary value attached to thoughts or prayers, the researchers assessed their value by looking at their willingness to pay (WTP), which measures the monetary value of the perceived costs and benefits. The researchers developed an experiment to elicit the WTP from religious and nonreligious participants for thoughts and prayers.

The subjects were paid a fee to compensate them for their time and an additional $5 to be used in the experiment. They were then asked how much money they were willing to give in exchange for prayers from a priest or Christian stranger, or thoughts from both nonreligious and religious strangers.

The Christians in the experiment valued a prayer from a Christian stranger, on average, at $4.36. A prayer from a priest was even higher with an average of $7.17. It should be noted that some Christians negatively valued thoughts from nonreligious strangers.

Atheists and agnostics, however, took things in a completely different direction.

Nonreligious people were willing to pay about $1.66 to avoid a prayer from a priest and more than double that price at $3.54 to avoid one from a Christian stranger.

"The last result is surprising because one might expect that atheists/agnostics would be indifferent to people praying for them -- why care, if you don't believe in the gesture?" said Thunström. "But that is not what we find -- atheists and agnostics are averse to prayers, to the extent that they are willing to abstain money in order to ensure not to get a prayer from a Christian stranger.

"Hence, it is important to think about who the target person is when sending thoughts and prayers in the wake of hardship."

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