Prayer Increases Forgiveness, Study Finds

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

We have all been guilty of a transgression at one time or another. That's because we're not perfect. We all commit hurtful acts, violate trust and hope for forgiveness.
Here's another truth: Nine out of 10 people in the U.S. say they pray--at least on occasion. Florida State University psychologist Nathaniel Lambert put these two notions together and came up with an idea: Why not take all that prayer and direct it at the people who have wronged us? Is it possible that directed prayer might spark forgiveness in those people praying and in the process preserve relationships?

Lambert and his colleagues decided to test this hypothesis in two experiments appearing in Psychological Science. In the first, they had a group of men and women pray one single prayer for their romantic partner's well-being. Other participants, the experimental control group, simply described their partner while speaking into a tape recorder.

The researchers then measured forgiveness. The scientists defined forgiveness as the diminishing of the initial negative feelings that arise when you've been wronged. The results showed that those people who had prayed for their partner harbored fewer vengeful thoughts and emotions: They were more ready to forgive and move on.

If one single prayer can cause such a striking difference in feelings, then what could prayer over a period of time do for a relationship? In a second study, the researchers had a group of men and women pray for a close friend every day for four weeks. Other participants simply reflected on the relationship, thinking positive thoughts but not praying for the friend's well-being. The researchers also added another dimension: They used a scale to measure selfless concern for others--not any particular person but other people generally. They speculated that prayer would increase selfless concern, which in turn would boost forgiveness.

That's just what the researchers found--but why? How does this common spiritual practice exert its healing effects?

The psychological scientists have an idea: Most of the time, couples profess and believe in shared goals, but when they hit a rough patch, they often switch to adversarial goals, such as retribution and resentment. These adversarial goals shift cognitive focus to the self, and shaking that self-focus can be tough. Prayer appears to shift attention from the self back to others, which allows the resentments to fade.

Catherine Allen-West

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Review Date: 
September 17, 2010