The price of prayer

Dec 18, 2019

Examining whether “thoughts and prayers” substitute for or complement material help.

An earlier version of this article, about a working paper that has become the now soon-to-be-published article it summarizes, appeared in Philanthropy Daily on December 19, 2018.


“Do you have a dollar? I’m out of singles.”

A good, serious Catholic, my mother wanted to be sure she had something to throw into the collection basket before we left for Advent Mass. After dutifully opening my wallet, I told her that no, unfortunately, I had no singles. The smallest bill I had was a five. Sorry. Out of luck this week.

The parish really seems to have enough money anyway, Mom. Maybe you can give a little extra next week. In the meantime, just offer up a prayer. She was okay with that. On the way to church, I wondered: is that really the “price” of prayer? A measly buck?

Economic “substitution”

In an interesting article forthcoming in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, University of Wyoming assistant economics professor Linda Thunström finds a quantifiable “substitution effect” of prayer in some cases, in fact. Turns out that prayer can “crowd out” donations, according to the economist. Apparently, a “price” can be put on prayer for the giver, and a “penalty” from it for the receiver.

Thunström’s “Thoughts and Prayers—Do They Crowd out Charity Donations?” actually examines if both thoughts and prayers are substitutes or complements to material help. Thoughts can increase the salience of donation recipients’ well-being in the mind of the potential giver, which unambiguously increases donations. Prayers can decrease donations if the donor perceives them to directly improve the recipient’s well-being.

Specifically, for Thunström’s study, religious and non-religious subjects were offered to make donations to hurricane Harvey victims via the American Red Cross. In the baseline treatment, subjects were offered to donate to the hurricane Harvey victims. In the other treatments, subjects were asked either to take a moment to think about the victims, or to pray (this treatment entails religious subjects only), before they were given the opportunity to donate.

“When offering experimental participants the opportunity to donate to hurricane Harvey victims, we find that intercessory prayers crowd out monetary donations by $1, while we find no crowding out from intercessory thoughts,” according to Thunström.

The crowding out from prayers is consistent with the idea that prayers increase the empathy for hurricane victims, but that the positive impact on donations from this empathy effect is dominated by a negative substitution effect—prayers, like donations, are perceived as directly beneficial to hurricane victims, such that they may replace monetary donations.

So, out of (financial) “luck,” might thus think the victim—essentially, penalized by the prayer.

“Our results imply victims of natural disasters may be financially worse off from people expressing their sympathy through the act of praying.,” Thunström concludes. “Our results do, however, not mean that recipients of prayers are worse off in terms of welfare. It is entirely possible that a recipient of prayers assigns a positive (monetary) value to a prayer”—the perceived penalty, in other words—“which may or may not exceed the value by which monetary donations drop due to the act of praying.”

Even more specifically, the mean donation from all of those in the baseline-treatment group was $1.86, and the mean donation from Christians in this group was $1.98. From those in the larger baseline group asked to “merely” think about the hurricane victims before they donate, the mean donation was $2.16. From those in the group of Christians asked to pray for the victims before they give, the mean donation was $1.23.

Religious intent

Generally, Thunström’s finding sure seems to make some sense, rationally and religiously. People like my mother who pray presumably do perceive prayers to directly improve the recipient’s well-being, as Thunström recognizes. They’re worth something. People who pray probably wouldn’t even really think to put a numeric price on them, though an economist’s study certainly can.

And so can an actual or would-be recipient, of course. But hell, in this season of Advent preparation, consider taking the well-intentioned prayer, anyway. Pay the 75-cent economic “penalty” (about which you’ll likely never know, in any case).

This Christmastime, got a prayer in your wallet? I’m out of singles, and it might be worth something.


(Hat tip to National Affairs’ great daily “Findings” page by Kevin Lewis, who included the Thunstrӧm working paper in a compilation last year.)