A series of studies examined the power of prayer and found that benevolent prayers can be an effective way to control our anger and aggressive impulses.
In the first study, participants were instructed to write an essay about an experience from their past that made them angry. They were then given bogus negative feedback from a “partner” that included the sentence. “This is one of the worst essays I have ever read.” Now that the participants were stewing in irritation from the feedback, they participated in another study (a rigged continuation of the first) where they were told about a student who was fighting a rare cancer. Some participants were asked to pray for the student for five minutes and some to merely think about her. They were then asked to report how angry the felt. Participants who prayed for the sick student were significantly less angry than those who just thought about her.
A second study was similar to the first. Participants wrote an essay and received anger inducing negative feedback from a “partner”. They were then instructed to either think about their fake “partner” or pray about them for 5 minutes. Once the five minutes were up, participants played a game with their fake partners and were told that if they won the game they could blast their partner with loud noise through headphones. It was up to them to decide how long the noise would last and how loud it would be (a test of how aggressive they felt).
Students who prayed for their partner were much more restrained in their aggression (even though their partner criticized their essays) than students who just thought about their partner, who blasted their fake partners with significantly louder music and for longer durations.
An important note: Praying was effective in calming anger and aggression only when the nature of the prayer was benevolent. Prayers that are angry or vengeful are likely to increase anger and aggression, not subdue them.
Prayer as a Form of Reappraisal
Reappraisal is a form of emotional regulation in which we change the underlying meaning of an event and by doing so, change our emotional reaction to it. For example, if we’re angry about missing our flight we can either brood about it while we wait for the next one, increasing our anger as a result, or we can consider it an opportunity to catch up on work, or to call home and have a nice long chat with a family member. Doing the latter will change how we think about the event and make us less angry in the moment.
Prayer functions as a form of reappraisal, as by praying for the person who angered us, we reframe our understanding of the event to one in which we see that person as requiring spiritual help. By doing so, we lower the level and intensity of our anger and aggression and regain control.
Prayer as a Tool to Reduce Anger Ruminations
Prayer can be especially useful when we find ourselves caught in a ruminative cycle in which we repeatedly brood about an anger inducing event or experience (such as our boss yelling at us in a meeting, a doctor treating us rudely, a dating prospect rejecting us, or a family member gossiping about us behind our back). Rather than just replay the events in our minds and get angrier as a result, we should consider the person as someone who requires spiritual help and pray for them.
A secular version of this exercise would be to consider the person as someone troubled who might require psychological help, and spend a few minutes thinking of their emotional distress and how they might benefit from seeing a mental health professional (however, do not suggest they do so—the point of this exercise is solely to reduce your urge to ruminate).
For more about how to manage anger and how to stop cycles of intense brooding and rumination, check out my forthcoming book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press).
Copyright 2013 Guy Winch
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Reference: Bremner, R. H., Koole, S. L., & Bushman, B. J. “Pray for those who mistreat you: Effects of prayer on anger and aggression,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, (2011): 830-837.