October 2, 2015

Studying the practice of prayer worldwide

During “Why Prayer?,” the NDSP capstone conference, grantees Fareen Parvez, Shira Gabriel, and Ebenezer Obadare had a chance to sit down and discuss their research in France, the United States, and Nigeria.

Fareen Parvez, Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Massachusetts Amherst, discusses her research on Muslim women in France.

Shira Gabriel, Associate Professor of Psychology at State University of New York at Buffalo, talks about her work on prayer and cognition.

Ebenezer Obadare, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas, describes what he means by the phrase “charismatic Islam.”

September 29, 2014

Praying with the Body: An Experimental Challenge to Mind/Body Dualism in the Psychology of Religion

Mark Aveyard, an assistant professor of psychology at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, is using his knowledge of embodied cognition to study how the position and movement of the body during prayer relates to higher-level cognitive processes such as decision-making, language processing, and emotion. Aveyard, whose work is supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer Initiative, recently spoke with Jennifer Lois Hahn about the difficulties of experimental design, WEIRD research subjects, and the impact of culture on the way we think, use our bodies, and in some cases, use our bodies to think.


JLH: Could you start by explaining to someone who’s unfamiliar with embodied cognition what it is and how it differs from other models of cognition?

MA: We tend to talk about the mind in a kind of dualistic language. We tend to think of our minds as mental and our bodies as physical, and that these are separate domains. This dualism is reinforced by our religious beliefs, certainly. I think it’s reinforced partly because it’s useful to think of things in that way and by the fact that when we compare ourselves to many animals it does seem that we have these certain mental capacities that are extremely sophisticated. It’s very tempting to think of these as being almost disembodied, as being part of our human spirit in a way. That dualism has often carried over into more academic theories about the mind as well. Not that people are talking about souls and spirits any more, but they are talking about representations in the mind that are disconnected from bodily processes or not closely intertwined with them. The analogy I sometimes use with my students is a scene in the movie “The Matrix.” Somebody essentially gets plugged into a computer and they learn things about the world just by having information downloaded into the brain. This idea that you can fill your brain with data in the absence of physical experience has been very influential in the way that we think about the mind academically. So you have theories in robotics and computational science that try to model the brain with purely abstract symbols, with zeros and ones. If you just think about numbers and mathematics, about concepts like time and infinity, these seem to be very disconnected from the way that we move from one room to the next, or the way that we learn to walk or ride a bike, which seem like very physical activities. So I’m sympathetic to this dualistic mindset because I think it’s useful in some ways. But where it falls short is that it underestimates the contribution that bodily experience is making to those higher-level cognitive processes. Research on embodied cognition is showing that in mental processes like mathematics, the mind is often recruiting bodily processes in order to understand the things that it needs to understand. The same thing is true for language comprehension. Using language seems to be something that is pretty disconnected from the body. A lot of people out there are working on artificial intelligence programs for understanding language, and that may be theoretically possible—embodiment doesn’t say that comprehension of language absolutely needs, in all cases and at all times, a body. But it does argue that human beings use the body to understand language and that when, say, you read a sentence about somebody walking, running, or throwing something, you are understanding that sentence not just in some kind of dictionary sense, but that you are actually recruiting your own bodily understanding of how those actions are done. So whatever neurons you are activating when you, yourself, walk or run or throw, some of that network is being recruited when you read a sentence about somebody doing the same thing. In other words, having experienced something bodily is helping you understand everyday conversation about similar actions. It wasn’t obvious to cognitive scientists many years ago that that might be the case because things like language, mathematics, decision-making, and judgment seem so abstract in their nature and disconnected from the bodily experiences. But we’ve seen a shift over the years as we’ve accumulated more and more evidence that these higher-level processes are actually actively drawing on these so-called lower-level processes of motor, sensory, and perceptual experience. 

JLH: It’s striking that embodied cognition has not been studied more widely in the context of religion.

MA: It has been studied extensively by anthropologists, especially in ethnography, but anthropologists tend to be interested in the social ramifications of those rituals and what each of those bodily movements or adornments are supposed to express in terms of the theology of the religion. There is no focus whatsoever on what the motor movement itself is supposed to contribute when people do those rituals. So if you are a Christian and you pray by putting your hands together and closing your eyes, what is that doing for you besides making you feel as if you are doing what you are supposed to be doing as you pray? If you are Muslim and you are going through the Muslim prayer ritual, which has a predefined series of steps that were outlined by the prophets, what does that contribute? It’s easy to miss the importance of the motor rituals beyond this sort of traditional standpoint because it’s easy to adopt a dualistic framework when thinking about religion. In fact, that is what most religious people tend to do implicitly when they describe the rituals that they go through in their religion. If you ask people what is important in prayer they tend to focus on the most mentalistic or even spiritualistic aspects of prayer. Not surprisingly, they don’t reflect very much on what bodily movements contribute to all of the other stuff they think is important in prayer. What is the connection between moving your body in a certain way and adopting a certain position and these higher-level cognitive processes in regard to what you’re thinking about, what decisions you’re making, what kind of spiritual feeling you’re having? What is the connection between moving your body in a certain way and your concerns for your family, for the state of the world around you, for the state of your soul? 

JLH: How did you go about trying to answer such complex questions experimentally? 

MA: In the basic paradigm, we bring participants into the lab and tell them they’re going to be doing a very simple exercise study. In fact, half of the participants will be going through a series of motions similar to those they go through in their prayers within their religion. The other half will be going through a series of motions that are not related to prayer in their religion. We expect that just going through these motions without being aware of their religious nature will have some effect on the next task that they do in the experiment. What we want to see is that they show stronger religious cognition when they’ve gone through motor movements that are associated with prayer versus movements that are not associated with prayer. It’s important that they make no connection between the movements that they did earlier and the measurement that we’re conducting. When we first started out, the problem was that when they were going through the movements themselves they were becoming aware that this must have something to do with religion. So we really struggled to create procedures that were authentically religious where the motor movements corresponded to prayer movements in Islam but were not so obvious that people would become aware of it. That was actually much more difficult than I imagined. We wanted to show that just doing something physically, even if you’re not even thinking about what that’s associated with, can influence subsequent religious thinking—that the body, just in it’s own capacity, can influence cognition in some surprising ways. So that’s why we wanted to isolate that, the influence of those motor movements.

JLH: You conducted a number of different experiments to try to shed light on how those motor movements affect cognition. Can you tell me more about some them and what you found?

MA: In one experiment participants were asked to look at a series of words on screen and memorize them. Most of these words were non-religious words, but we threw in a small subset of religious words. While they were memorizing these words, they were either holding their hands up in a way that corresponded to the first part of the Islamic prayer ritual or in a way that did not. Then we had them take a break for a moment and we came back and we presented another series of words and asked them to press a button in order to indicate whether that word was present in the original set or not. While they responded to these words they adopted the original position that they had adopted in the first part of the experiment, either congruent or incongruent with prayer. What we found is that when they adopted a congruent position, both in the training and the test phase, they were much faster to respond to religious words that had been present in the original phase—more so than the words that had nothing to do with religion. We also found that those in the incongruent condition, who were adopting a position that is not consistent with the first part of the Islamic prayer ritual, were responding slower to the religious words. This seems to indicate that the position in which they are holding their hands is slowing them down because it’s inconsistent with the associations they have made over the years between the words that we are presenting on screen in Arabic and the position that they should be in. It’s as if their mind thinks, “I’m seeing a religious word on screen, but I feel like I should be in a different bodily position when I’m responding to that word,” and so it takes just a little bit longer for their minds to adjust to that and then to say, “Oh, yes, this is a religious word that I saw earlier in the first part of the experiment.” We followed that up with another study where we had them adopt the same positions, congruent or incongruent with Islamic prayer, and this time, instead of having them respond to words they saw in the training phase, we presented them with incomplete words on screen and asked them to fill in the last letter to complete the word. So they might see the letters G-O on screen, and then a blank, and they could fill it in with a word that wasn’t religious, like GOT, or they could fill in that word with a religious word, which would be GOD. What we find is that when they are holding a position consistent with the Islamic prayer ritual, they complete that task with religious words more often. So what we’re showing is that just by being in a certain type of physical position, it’s as if you are preparing your mind to think religiously. It may be that one of the core functions of using the body in religious rituals is a way of preparing yourself to be in the mindset that you need to be in in order to satisfy the general function of your religion.

JLH: Where does culture fits into all of this? The cognitive science of religion is often criticized for being too universalistic, for not giving enough consideration to the effects of culture on cognition.

MA: I think culture is a big challenge for embodiment researchers. Everybody in every culture has a body. By and large, the vast majority of human beings walk upright and have two legs, two arms, ten digits and so on. Because of this, we tend to assume that a lot of these embodied processes in cognition must be universal and must develop in very similar ways. I was just in the Netherlands presenting the results of some of my work on the SSRC project. Of course you notice when you’re in the Netherlands that lots of people ride bikes. Where I work in Dubai, virtually nobody rides bikes. So there may be these cultural differences in terms of the types of motor movements you do, but the assumption is usually that the rules that the brain follows to connect motor movements to higher-level processes like language comprehension or decision making must be universal. I don’t think we should be making that assumption. I think that’s something that’s going to have to be demonstrated empirically. It could be that embodiment is very flexible culturally and that the cultural differences between the way people use their bodies has a very big impact on higher-level processes. For instance, there are some cultures where people are used to thinking in terms of arithmetic operations and there are some where that’s just not the case. Not only does that make for a large cultural difference and important psychological differences but maybe that’s also connected to the motor behaviors and sensory perceptual experiences that people grow up with in those cultures. I don’t know. I think we need to be careful about it. Given that cross-cultural differences in cognition have been revealed to be fairly significant in many cases, I think that embodiment researchers need to think carefully about the role of culture in embodiment. I don’t have a theory of that yet, but it is something that I have been thinking about.

JLH: How do you think that embodiment researchers might better test for the effects of culture?

MA: When it comes to religion, the big challenge for psychology right now is just to get out there and do research in different religious contexts—to study non-Western and non-monotheistic religious traditions in more depth in order to test out theories on subjects other than the typical American college student. Also, the challenge is to conduct more international collaboration projects and to try to put some more of the psychology of religion into the replication projects that are going on in psychology right now. That’s easier said than done. There’s a little bit of an irony here in that to establish a lab in a culture that isn’t represented very well in psychology is very difficult, because these are often cultures that do not have the sort of Westernized values that help build up research universities in the first place. So if a culture doesn’t value psychology and doesn’t fund it, and if people aren’t going to university and choosing to major in psychology, it’s pretty difficult then to have a presence for psychological research in those contexts. There’s a lot of criticism about WEIRD psychology, the fact that psychological studies tend to rely on subjects that are from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies. The idea is that most of our participants are these WEIRD participants who are not like most people in the world. That’s true with psychology of religion as well. I think there’s been a lot of criticism about that, particularly in social psychology, but I think it’s actually much harder to do research in other contexts, and I say that partly from personal experience.

JLH: Can you talk a little bit about your experience working in Dubai and how living in the Middle East has changed your view on prayer?

MA: After I moved to Dubai, the experience of cultural difference really inspired me to think about conducting research there on culture and specific aspects of culture, like religion. For nearly all of my students, religion is an important aspect of their lives, either as something that they follow in a very traditional sense or as something that they are sort of exploring in a more individualistic way. I had so many conversations with students in my first few years there about religion and culture that I started asking myself why I wasn’t doing any research on those topics. I also saw an opportunity to conduct research in a setting that virtually nobody else was conducting research in. When I first started doing research on psychology of religion about three years ago, I didn’t know of anybody else in the Arab world who was doing this type of research experimentally. Since then, I’ve seen a couple papers coming out from other researchers in the Middle East and North Africa, but it’s a large area of the world, in which there are very few psychology labs and a lot of instability, so it’s hard to attract people to this part of the world to set up a lab and commit to cross-cultural research.

Living in Dubai has changed my view of psychology in general. I have a much greater appreciation for the power of culture in a way that I think I would not have appreciated if I had moved to London or Berlin or some place where there was a lot of common cultural currency between my place of immigration and my place of origin in the United States. The power of culture in everyday thinking and decision-making and emotional life has struck me as being a much bigger deal than it’s typically regarded as in psychology, particularly in cognitive psychology, where universalist assumptions are predominant.

November 19, 2013

Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics (1966)

A self-conscious addition to the postwar surge in self-help discourse, Psycho-Cybernetics was published in 1960. Claiming to have sold over one million copies by the mid-1960s, Maxwell Maltz’s therapeutic program promised to “eradicate ‘emotional scars’ just as a plastic surgeon removes outer scars.” As cybernetics made its way into the laboratories, manufacturing centers, and imaginations of the populace, Maltz’s was a necessary update as Americans became more comfortable with their cyborg future.

The vinyl affect of Psycho-Cybernetics is palpable, as the program is peppered with common sense encomiums, references to Napoleon and Dugald Stewart, and the revelation that your nervous system cannot tell the difference between an actual experience and an imaginary one.

So put your headphones on and give a listen to this heady treatise. Move beyond the merely human, past the “hypnotized” state of the masses. Receive instruction to take charge of your interactions with the representations of self that you have already generated. This is who you are, in charge and on top—the executive warding over the vast machinery of you. This is the imagination at work—you are not a machine but rather the engineer who, by way of one’s study course in psycho-cybernetics, has learned to manipulate the self from a distance, to massage one’s interactions with others, to write the code for complete happiness, sanity, and success.

Let your creative-success mechanism take over. Transcend space and time. Transgress the limitations of death.

April 22, 2013

Can Being Asked to Pray Be Harmful?

My hope when I started my research on prayer was to learn about faith. However, anyone who does experimental research knows that it is a very long road from idea to data. After coming up with our ideas and designing our experiments, the next step in our process was to get approval from an independent review board to run experiments in which participants come into our lab and pray. The board is there to look out for our participants’ well-being, which is an important and necessary job. There are some standard issues which they look out for:  are we informing participants of the requirements of the experiment; is it clear to them that they can quit at any time without penalty; are there any risks; are participants aware of those risks; etc. We are lucky enough in my department to have a reasonable and smart review board which functions very well. However, because the board is staffed by humans, and because humans are generally reasonable but also imperfect, inconsistent, and unpredictable, the decisions of the review boards are generally reasonable but can also be imperfect, inconsistent, and unpredictable. Some studies which seem like high risk to us fly through the board without issue, whereas other studies which seem innocuous to us get a great deal of consideration. Those inconsistencies are to be expected in any such process. 

The first time we submitted a study in which participants would be asked to pray we got a lot of feedback and concern from the Board. Sure, asking people to pray seems innocuous to me in comparison with studies that expose people to disturbing images, ask them to recall stressful events, remind them of their insecurity about their romantic relationships, and threaten their self-esteem—but the process is variable, remember? Thus, one over-cautious review from the Board didn’t cause me pause. However, when a pattern emerged, the scientist in me took note. And a pattern has emerged. A significant portion of reviewers have had substantial concerns about asking participants to pray in the lab. One reviewer asked us to limit our sample to only religious people. He (or she-I don’t know) thought it might be offensive to non-religious people to be asked to pray. So we limited our sample to only religious people. Then another reviewer was concerned that even with our limits, some participants might be traumatized by the prayer manipulation. He or she felt that it would be unethical to ask people who don’t pray to pray in the lab and suggested that we warn people before the study even starts that we will be asking them to pray. That way if someone finds this so offensive, he or she can quit before the experiment starts and thus never have to be in the position of being asked to pray.


March 2, 2013

The Higher Power

“Prayer” is not a good word among many adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse. I learned this at the first meeting of survivors I attended in the Chicago area last winter. These survivors have largely broken with the church. They associate “prayer” with the authority of the church and with the church’s determination, as they see it, to deny their experience. “Prayer,” when it is attached to the idea of “healing,” is especially toxic because it appears to insist on closure. “Pray to be healed” sounds like a command. “What’s a better word than prayer?” I asked.  The word this group agreed on was “spirituality.” Here’s where I had to confront and rethink some old assumptions about praying and about religion. I had been certain for a long time that “spirituality” is an empty category, signifying nothing. But if spirituality is nothing, then it makes no sense to think of prayer as a “spiritual” practice, which is precisely how these survivors were thinking of it. And if prayer is relational, as I believe it is—taking place within webs of relationships that extend between heaven and earth, living and dead—then what does it mean to pray to the pallid abstractions, who have no personality or substance, that float through the realms of the “spiritual?”


March 2, 2013

Knowing What it's Like to Hear God Speak

New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantee Tanya Luhrmann, in a recent essay for The Daily Beast, writes: “I know what it is like to hear God speak.” Luhrmann gleans this knowledge from years of anthropological study of evangelical Christians, during which she has observed their learning to hear the voice of God, to “pay attention to their inner world in a different way.” But while Luhrmann is not herself a Christian, nor even does she know in certain terms what she herself means by the word “God,” there is nonetheless an experiential flavor to her knowledge of God’s voice: prayer and the other techniques of learning worked for her, too.

I worshiped with these charismatic evangelicals. I prayed with them. I read their books. I sought to pay attention to my inner world the way they did. As I did so, I began to have experiences like the ones they reported. I remember with clarity the first time it happened. I was trying to compose a note to someone—one of those complicated notes you need to send to someone you don’t know well, when you want to be personal but not forward. I fretted about the note off and on for a few days. Then suddenly the sentences just came to me. I didn’t feel that I had chosen them. They came to me, and I wrote them down, and they were perfect. To some extent, the practice works. My ethnographic and experimental work confirmed this again and again.

Read the full piece here. For more information about Luhrmann’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer research, read her project description. Also keep your eyes on Reverberations for our upcoming interview with Luhrmann.

February 27, 2013

What Can the Study of Prayer Tell Us?

Noguchi, Water Garden, NYC via flickr user lao_ren100 What can the study of prayer tell us – about social life, religious institutions and practices, shared and unique concepts of communication, and ethical self-formation? New Directions in the Study of Prayer supports research that seeks to better understand prayer, in its many forms, but that also considers how the varied practices (from the textual to the embodied) associated with prayer may influence broader questions about social and human concerns. This SSRC initiative is thus working to broaden the study of prayer beyond the relatively narrow range of questions that has recently shaped scholarly discourse and interest. Indeed, we have noted that the relatively limited scope of high profile research on prayer reinforces a widely (if implicitly) held view that prayer is of marginal interest to scholars whose work is focused on themes and issues generally deemed more consequential for modern life.

In so doing, the initiative has taken a broad approach to defining prayer, and likewise how it might be understood as an object of study. Prayer is, understandably, defined and described in many ways that impinge, productively, on the disciplines (and tools and theories) used to engage it. As we are well aware, prayer’s boundaries and its distinction from other kinds of activity (meditation, for example) are not always clear. What appears to be a clear and salient definition in the psychological laboratory, for example, may be quite different from the anthropological or legal definitions that are useful and uncontested in other social contexts. An exciting and central part of our program is to engage these linked definitional and disciplinary issues head-on. We thus believe that to produce a more expansive and nuanced body of research on prayer, scholars must develop an enlarged understanding of the variety of disciplinary approaches operative in the study of prayer throughout the academy, and of the distinctive questions, methodologies, commitments, and presuppositions that govern each.


February 26, 2013

Prayer as an Embodied Cognitive Activity

People think of prayer as a mental activity that happens, at times, to involve physical actions. After believers master the ritual movements of their religious traditions, personal and theological concerns about the mental side of prayer tend to overshadow the importance of such bodily actions. In contrast, the studies proposed here approach prayer as an embodied activity through which integrated physical and mental processes enhance and sustain religious and spiritual experience. The project begins with the hypothesis that prayer’s physicality is not a secondary concern unrelated to religiosity and spirituality but an important component of their everyday processes, even within cognitive systems that carry out high-level mental functions (like consciousness).

Scholars have discussed at length the physical aspects of prayer rituals, with special regard to their theological significance. But these discussions have not inspired a program of empirical research that specifies how such physicality causally interacts with the mental activities of prayer. Such discussions remain symbolic and theological in nature. Among scientists, quantitative research on prayer has examined its relationship with physiological and neurological processes (and health outcomes in particular) but such studies have not explored its intrinsic physicality at the level of cognition. The aim of the research proposed here is to change the way we think about prayer, so that we come to regard it as a deeply physical activity—not one that merely uses the body in some trivial sense but one that is bound up with ordinary bodily experience.

This project investigates the link between prayer’s higher and lower cognitive processes using a theoretical framework known as embodied cognition (or embodiment). For roughly two decades, embodied cognition has challenged a popular view among researchers that cognition involves computational-like processing of abstract symbols (instantiated in neural substrates). Accordingly, I argue that prayer research must also, to some extent, de-mentalize its theoretical assumptions. Using experimental designs and quantitative measurements primarily, this project explores the embodiment of prayer by showing how low-level sensorimotor and visual processes causally interact with higher-level processes associated with prayer and religiosity such as memories, attitudes, judgments, and attention.

February 26, 2013

The Relationship Between Automatic and Deliberate Cognitions and Prayer

Co-Principal Investigator for project is Galen Bodenhausen.

The current research brings together research on prayer, which has benefited from an expansion of the concept of prayer from a singular to a multifaceted entity (Ladd & Splika, 2002; Poloma & Pendleton, 1989) and research on cognition, which has benefited from an expansion of a view of cognition from a singular to multifaceted entity (Bargh 2007). It is proposed that different kinds of prayer will activate different kinds of cognitive processes and will thus have unique implications for moral and ethical decision making.

The proposed research will examine the cognitive underpinnings and implications of three kinds of prayer. The first kind of prayer involves petitioning God for direction in decision making (Bade & Cook, 2008). When praying for guidance, individuals are likely to adopt a monitoring orientation in which they seek evidence of a divine response. Such responses must presumably be intuited by the petitioner. We propose that this intuitive monitoring orientation will lead individuals to pay undue attention to automatic mental associations activated by their cognitive system and thus will lead them to misattribute their own automatic associations to a divine source. The second kind of prayer involves a view of God as relatively more passive and benevolent and thus addresses God not with specific requests but instead with gratitude (Paloma & Pendleton, 1989). Unlike prayer for guidance, prayers of gratitude should not activate an intuitive monitoring orientation. Instead, this form of prayer will elicit more active, analytical thought processes, in which individuals actively deliberate about the blessings in their lives and contemplate their reasons for being grateful. We predict that this active reasoning orientation will lead to more complex and deliberative processing that is less influenced by automatic mental associations. Our prediction regarding the third form of prayer, prayers of praise, is offered more tentatively. This form of prayer is not expected to be systematically associated with intuitive monitoring, nor should it necessarily elicit more extensive deliberative thinking. As such, prayers of praise may elicit a level of implicit bias that is intermediate between that of prayers for guidance (high bias) and prayers of gratitude (low bias)

Four studies will utilize cutting edge research and theory on automatic cognition to understand how prayer affects moral and ethical decision making. Our research will directly address how prayer is similar to and related to automatic and deliberate mental processes by comparing the three kinds of prayers to two kinds of prayer-independent decision making processes. The first three studies will be experiments looking at the effects of prayer on use of automatic attitudes (Study 1), implicit bias (Study 2) and unconscious goals (Study 3). The fourth and final study will be a correlational study examining cognitive styles associated with the tendency to use each kind of prayer.

Intellectual Merit  The proposed studies will bring together cutting-edge research in prayer and in automatic social cognition and will be the first work to look at the unique cognitive styles associated with different kinds of prayers, increasing intellectual understanding of both prayer and automatic cognition. Furthermore, the proposed research utilizes cutting-edge social cognitive techniques to look at prayer and thus pushes the boundaries of methodological approaches to the study of prayer.

Broader Applications  The current work will be the first to look at the implications of prayer for decision making, setting the stage for research on all areas of decision making: in business, the court system, politics, and even personal relationships. The research will suggest that, when used wisely, prayer has the power to reduce prejudice, increase effective decision making, and help people make decisions that most strongly reflect their best interest

February 26, 2013

Investigating the Cognitive and Cultural Foundations of Prayer

Co-Principal Investigators include Henry Wellman and Margaret Evans.

We examine the development of prayer concepts, specifically concepts of petitionary prayer that makes requests of divine beings. Petitionary prayer is practiced by children and adults worldwide (BBC News, 2007; Pew Research Center, 2008; Pew Research Center, 2010). It is particularly interesting conceptually because it entails that we suspend many of our intuitions about the natural world. In our daily social interactions we lack telepathic skills and communicate by speaking aloud; further, we appreciate that people and objects are subject to inviolable laws of physics and biology. Yet, to fully grasp the significance of petitionary prayer requires that we conceptualize and believe: (1) in a being (God) who is not physically present yet can still perceive our words and, even more extraordinary, is aware of our unspoken thoughts; (2) that our prayers can yield physical outcomes without our physical intervention; and (3) that otherwise improbable or impossible phenomena (e.g., parting a sea, recovering from a terminal illness) are indeed possible with divine intervention.

Intellectual merit: Our research will examine how people come to represent these counterintuitive prayer concepts, a topic that can also shed light more generally on how counterintuitive spiritual ideas are cognitively represented and culturally transmitted. Limited prior research suggests that an understanding of prayer emerges and develops substantially during early and middle childhood (e.g., Bamford & Lagattuta, 2010; Woolley & Phelps, 2001), highlighting a particularly important period for research. But young children evidence cognitive limitations that may hinder their appreciating the three components of prayer described above, these include a difficulty conceptualizing extraordinary minds (Giménez-Dasí et al., 2005; Lane et al., 2010; Makris & Pnevmatikos, 2007); a disbelief that the improbable is possible (Shtulman & Carey, 2007); and disbelief in mental telepathy and psychokinesis (Bering & Parker, 2006; Woolley et al., 1999). Given such cognitive constraints, when and how do children fully grasp and believe in the goals and significance of prayer?

Research: To answer this question, Study 1 will examine when and how children and adults appreciate that an extraordinary being (the Judeo-Christian God) can perceive prayers, whereas ordinary humans cannot. Study 2 will examine reasoning about the efficacy of prayer relative to other psychological activities, like thinking and wishing. Critically, conceptual development is partly a function of culturally-provided information (Shweder et al., 2006). So, we will conduct studies with participants from different religious contexts. Moreover, we will collect data on participants’ religious background, including their exposure to and engagement in prayer. We will also assess other cognitive capacities that may support a developing understanding of prayer, including children’s ability to reason about improbable phenomena (Shtulman & Carey, 2007).

Broader impacts: Results from these studies will shed light on the cognitive and cultural foundations of prayer concepts that are held by millions of individuals worldwide, and in doing so will contribute to the cognitive science of religion. In particular, our studies will (a) contribute to understanding the cognitive and psychological dimensions of prayer, and will (b) serve as a cross-cultural comparative analysis of prayer. Moreover, our findings will inform parents and others about when children are most receptive to learning about different components of prayer.

February 26, 2013

The Psychology of Prayer

New Directions in the Study of Prayer advisory committee member Kevin Ladd, along with co-author Bernard Spilka, have recently published The Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach (Guilford Press):

Reviewing the growing body of scientific research on prayer, this book describes what is known about the behavioral, cognitive, emotional, developmental, and health aspects of this important religious activity. The highly regarded authors provide a balanced perspective on what prayer means to the individual, how and when it is practiced, and the impact it has in people’s lives. Clinically relevant topics include connections among prayer, coping, and adjustment, as well as controversial questions of whether prayer (for oneself or another) can be beneficial to health. The strengths and limitations of available empirical studies are critically evaluated, and promising future research directions are identified.

Read more about the volume here and access a PDF of the introductory chapter here.

February 26, 2013

The Role of Prayer in the Development of Religious Cognitions

Co-Principal Investigator is Nicholas Shaman.

Children’s religious concepts undergo significant transitions during the preschool years. Their understanding of ritual actions, God, and supernatural causality undergo qualitative shifts. Despite the dynamic nature of development during these years, little research has examined the cultural factors that contribute to preschool-aged children’s understanding of religious activities, like prayer. The proposed research is significant for advancing knowledge of how children’s understanding of and experience with prayer can shape their religious experiences and understanding. The guiding hypothesis of the project is children’s learning about and conceptions of prayer influence and is influenced by children’s understanding of religious entities and supernatural causality. The specific aim is to examine if differences in exposure to, understanding of, and participation in prayer are related to individual differences in the development of religious concepts during the preschool years.

The proposed research method will be a cross-sectional study conducted with children in the preschool years, which mark a transition period in the development of children’s religious cognition. Parent-child dyads, representing Catholic, Evangelical Christian, and Reform Jewish religious traditions, will participate in a one-time visit to the Childhood Cognition Laboratory at UC Riverside. Children will be between the ages of 3.5 and 5. The visit will be divided into two segments: parent survey/child interview and parent-child interaction. Children’s and parents’ concepts of God, supernatural causality, and prayer will be assessed through separate interviews with trained researchers. The measures will assess how children and parents attribute anthropomorphic attributes to God, how children and parents judge the possible occurrence of impossible events, and how children and parents view the purpose of the actions of prayer. Analyses will involve correlating these measures with one another as well as with aspects of the parent-child interactions. A long-term goal of this program of research is to increase awareness of different prayer practices as well as further understanding about the influence of different prayer practices on development.