Prayer and Confirmation Bias

May 2, 2016 - 10 minutes read

Dear fervent believer in the power of prayer,

Let’s be honest with each other: it’s always a 50/50 probability, isn’t it? The likelihood of any prayer being “answered” is exactly as it would be if your deity-of-choice didn’t exist in the first place. The world we live in does not look like the one we should expect to see if prayer were effective. Rather, the world looks exactly the way it should look if prayer were completely and decisively ineffective.

There is no question that certain mental states and attitudes affect our ability to focus, perform, and cooperate. Humility often serves us better than cockiness, gratitude better than entitlement, optimism better than despair. So let me be clear about what I don’t mean by “prayer”, here: Some of us treat the word as a synonym for self-reflection, contemplation, or meditation. Some of us pray only for changes in our own consciousness, and I’m not tempted to deny the difference this can create in our behavior and performance (even if we mistakenly attribute the change to something supernatural, after the fact).  But there’s a direct causal line we can draw here, between our thoughts and our behavior, that can’t be drawn between our thoughts and, say, the Cubs winning the World Series, or the safety of Parisians during a terrorist attack.

If you believe that God, or Allah, or the Universe itself is listening to your prayers and, in fact, answering them, I want you to ask yourself why you think so. It may be a matter of religious doctrine—the Bible tells you your faith can move mountains—but for most people, most of the time, it’s a matter of personal experience. You know prayer works because you’ve seen it work, first hand!

No. No, you really haven’t.  

In psychology, they call this “confirmation bias”—counting the hits and ignoring the misses. Our brains are predisposed to seek out and remember information that affirms our preconceptions, and omit or explain-away information that doesn’t. If you get results, “Glory be to God!” If you don’t, “God works in mysterious ways”.

It is an easily demonstrated fact of human cognition that infects nearly every aspect of our lives, every single day. It happens automatically, reflexively, and unwittingly. We want to be right, not wrong, and so we look to prove ourselves right, instead of looking to prove ourselves wrong (the opposite of how science works, by the way, and effectively why science is so successful a methodology). And while this “bug” in our wetware applies most obviously to emotionally-infused subjects like politics, religion, self-image, relationships, and sociology, it finds its way into our most menial of inferences as well:

And yet people who believe in the power of prayer seem to dismiss this fact about ourselves too—a form of confirmation bias in and of itself, perhaps.

If a god does exist and does answer prayer (only some of the time, for some people) it is also interesting to note that this god only seems to answer prayers in ways which can happen scientifically and naturalistically on their own, anyway: remission of cancer, getting hired for that job, the misdiagnosis of terminal diseases, the check in the mail that came just in time. But when was the last time you’ve seen an an amputee grow a new limb? Or a stick turned into a snake? Or someone deceased coming back to life after a week? Or the sun stopping in the sky? If God exists and answers prayers at all, He always seems careful to leave room for a naturalistic alternative explanation.

If you find yourself plummeting to the ground in a commercial jet with two busted engines, do you really think that praying to God would change His mind about your demise (and by extension, the demise of your fellow travelers)? Do you believe that prayer changes the natural, causal chain of events in the universe? If you knew that a loved one were in the same situation and prayed beforehand yet died anyway, you wouldn’t be shocked and appalled at God’s inaction, would you? You’d say, “God obviously has a plan and it isn’t our right to question it”.

But even under the assumption that prayer does work (for some people, some of the time), if you pray for something to happen and it indeed happens, would you even hesitate before attributing it to divine intervention with unyielding certainty? Would you stop to consider that God did not answer your particular prayer this time, but that you happened to get hired for the job anyway because you had a good interview? Probably not. And when millions upon millions of prayers go unanswered each day (including your own), resulting in suffering, war, death, destruction, poverty, hunger, misery, and very cranky professional athletes, does it even give you the slightest pause? Would you ever admit to yourself that the world looks exactly the way it would look if no prayer was ever answered? Again, probably not.

If I spent a year praying to my housecat, and found that my prayers appeared to be “answered” with the same frequency and to the same degree as your prayers to Jesus Christ, would you take me seriously when I told you that I know, from personal experience, that praying to my furry friend works? Of course not. But then, why wouldn’t you? Why do you subject my anecdotal evidence to a higher level of critical scrutiny than your own?

Does it bother you to think that murderers, rapists, dictators, adulterers, idolaters and thieves seem to have their prayers “answered” with the same frequency as anyone else, even when the prayer is a request to accomplish or get away with something immoral? Maybe you have ways of rationalizing this as well.

But then, that’s confirmation bias for you.

In 2006, Dr. Herbert Benson (a strong believer in the power of prayer) conducted a rigorous, decade-long, double-blind study of intercessory prayer using more than 1,800 subjects. To the disappointment of believers everywhere, the study showed that prayer from strangers had no effect whatsoever on patients recovering from heart surgery. More interestingly, patients who were informed that they were being prayed for actually did worse than their oblivious counterparts. (It is speculated that this resulted from higher expectations which can cause anxiety and disappointment.) Does something like this sway you in the least? Yet again, probably not.

Maybe you rationalize these findings with scripture like Matthew 4:7. “God doesn’t like being put to the test!”, you object. Maybe He simply refuses to answer any prayer whose effects would be examined scientifically. How exquisitely convenient. But does this rationalization really leave you any better off? We’re now left with a deity who (a) appears to care far more about His reputation for mystery than for the well-being of His creation, and who (b) doesn’t want you to have evidence for thinking prayer works. Who are you to question the Almighty?

You may believe that you have good reasons for believing a God exists. But you must admit, you have no good reasons for believing your prayers are ever answered.



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