The Power of Prayer?


Personal prayer buffers self-control depletion


The strength model of self-control has inspired large amounts of research and contributed to a deeper understanding of the temporal dynamics underlying self-control. Several studies have identified factors that can counteract self-control depletion, but relatively little is known about factors that can prevent depletion effects. Here we tested the hypothesis that a brief period of personal prayer would buffer self-control depletion effects. Participants either briefly prayed or thought freely before engaging (or not engaging) in an emotion suppression task. All participants completed a Stroop task subsequently. Individuals who had thought freely before suppressing emotions showed impaired Stroop performance compared to those who had not suppressed emotions. This effect did not occur in individuals who had prayed at the beginning of the study. These results are consistent with and contribute to a growing body of work attesting to the beneficial effects of praying on self-control.

Abundant evidence indicates that activities requiring self-control such as emotion regulation, thought control, resisting temptation, or inhibiting pre-potent response tendencies can lead to decrements in self-control performance in domains such as eating and drinking (Muraven, Collins, & Nienhaus, 2002; Vohs & Heatherton, 2000), aggression (DeWall, Baumeister, Stillman, & Gailliot, 2007), or executive control (Schmeichel, 2007). Researchers began investigating factors that can ameliorate the deleterious effects of self-control depletion. Among those factors are…, a brief period of mindfulness meditation (Friese, Messner, & Schaffner, 2012)…Particularly relevant for present purposes, in a recent study reminders of religious concepts such as God or devine that were presented outside of participants’ conscious awareness offset depletion effects (Rounding, Lee, Jacobson, & Ji, 2012).

…In the present study we tested the hypothesis that a brief period of personal prayer can prevent the deleterious effects of self-control depletion. Praying over prolonged periods of time strengthens self-control as indicated by reduced alcohol consumption and infidelity (Fincham, Lambert, & Beach, 2010; Lambert, Fincham, Marks, & Stillman, 2010). The (scarce) research on the short-term effects of praying suggests that it evokes feelings of inner strength and rest (Bänziger, van Uden, & Janssen, 2008; Janssen, Dehart, & Dendraak, 1990) and people turn to prayer as a coping response to high demands in life (Ellison & Taylor, 1996; McCullough & Larson, 1999), presumably because, in the words of William James, praying activates “energy, which otherwise would slumber” (James, 1902/1982, p. 477).

…We reasoned that praying might trigger a high construal level. Second, based on reports that individuals pray to gain subjective strengthening (Janssen et al., 1990), we investigated whether the extent to which individuals try to find strength during praying would mediate the hypothesized effect. Finally, previous research showed that (a) people interpret praying as a social interaction with God (Bremner, Koole, & Bushman, 2011; Schjoedt, Stødkilde-Jørgensen, Geertz, & Roepstorff, 2009), and (b) even brief social interactions can trigger cognitive resources and enhance executive control (Ybarra et al., 2008). We therefore investigated engagement in social interaction as a third potentially mediating factor. In sum, we hypothesized that a brief period of personal prayer would buffer self-control depletion effects. On an exploratory basis, we investigated construal level, subjective strengthening, and engagement in social interaction as potential mediators of this presumed effect.


…A brief period of personal prayer buffered the self-control depletion effect. Participants who had engaged in free thought for several minutes and had then engaged in an emotion suppression task showed impaired performance on a subsequent Stroop task compared to participants who had not suppressed emotions. This effect was not evident for participants who had prayed at the beginning of the study. Manipulation check findings suggest that participants in the prayer condition did not simply withhold effort from the suppression task; rather, it appears that they legitimately exercised self-control during the suppression task but did not become depleted. The present finding fits well with recent research investigating the association of religion and self-control in general (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009; Rounding et al., 2012), and praying and self-control in particular (Bremner et al., 2011; Fincham et al., 2010; Lambert, Fincham, Marks, et al., 2010).



Friese, M., & Wänke, M. (2014). Personal prayer buffers self-control depletion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 56-59.


Categories: prayer, self control

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2 replies »

  1. Fascinating piece! Well sourced, evidential, and thoughtfully presented. While my angle would have come from a spiritual angle, I also would have missed several points of evidence you present. I would have been in Matthew 7:7… ask and you shall receive.
    Great work!

    • getting sufferers to try and to use the tools which brought healing in us is what we attempt to do – we will use any study or evidence, academic, ancedotal or otherwise in that pursuit to convey there are tools out there to treat the distress at the heart of addiction such as prayer, meditation, helping others and being part of, belonging to recovery and spiritual groups, connectedness and talking to and with others about our problems to arrive at better decisions – all these are universally efficacious and have been shown to be via a host of different criterion. It is as if what is the best can be demonstrated in a multitude of ways and which leaves no one out. We should never dismiss what is useful due to our own ways of looking at the world, we should hope to unite apparent differences under what is universally helpful to those who suffer.

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