Prayer leads people who believe in a benevolent God to read less hostility in others’ eyes, study finds

New research suggests that Christians are less likely to perceive negative mental states in others after praying.

The researchers had 110 Dutch Christians either pray for a person in need or just think about a person in need before completing the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test to assess their social perception. The test requires participants to judge whether 36 photographs of different people’s eye gazes display a negative or positive emotion.

The study, published in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior, found that the participants who prayed tended to recognize less hostility in other people’s eyes. This was particularly true of participants who reported more trust in God and believed God was benevolent.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Marieke Meijer-van Abbema of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

We observed among Christians that people behave social for very different reasons. The main two reasons seem to be, first, because of group pressure, fear to be rejected by others and God, and second, because of the intention to be like Jesus, trust in God’s love and wanting to share. From the outside, the outcome of these different motivations is the same, namely prosocial behaviour. We wondered if, at a more unconscious level, there also would be a difference in attitude towards others before the actual behaviour takes place.

What should the average person take away from your study?

The way you look at God colours the way you look at others, even if you don’t believe in God. The results showed that people believing in a loving and caring God failed to recognize negative emotions in eyes of others, after activation of God belief, in this case through prayer. If you believe God loves you and you trust him to take care of you, you will trust others more, maybe because you don’t have to be alert — after all God will protect you. Also your perspective might change. When God loves us, we will love others too. There is a study among Palestinians (Ginges, Sheikh, Atran & Argo, 2015) where participants were asked to look at others through God’s eyes. This mitigated bias towards Jewish Israelis, promoting more prosocial behaviour and in the end maybe even peace.

If you believe more strongly in a judging God, you will feel more fear and guilt and therefore be more fearful or judging to others. It therefore helps to reflect on what you actually believe about God and to reflect on the way this influences the way you observe others. This goes also for those who don’t believe in God, but often have negative thoughts on God when asked for. These negative thoughts also seem to overflow to others, at least when these thoughts on God are activated.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

We only used the mind in the eyes test to measure how people evaluate emotions in the eyes of others. Although this measure has been used many times before, some items might be interpretable in different ways. Therefore repetition of this study with an alternative measure of social evaluation, how people perceive others, would be informative. Also, God image might be measured more in depth, with something like a personality measurement. Besides, I believe that the way one sees God influences the way one sees oneself, so human image and god image might interact with each other. But how?

Finally, addressing fear and trust as different drives need to be examined more in depth in the context of God-human relation.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We conducted these studies in the Netherlands, a quite secularized country where Christians do not have much political power. Christians in the Netherlands are mostly very active and involved, but hesitate to tell about their faith outside the church, out of fear to be ironized. The Dutch Christians reported a mainly strong caring and loving God believe and far less a punishing God belief.

However, we did (partly) the same study in the USA and there the God belief seems to be more complex. People report to have strong beliefs in a caring God and a punishing God at the same time. Considering the perspective change theory, this might be due to the fact that Christians in the States actually have power, so when you believe that God judges, you might have the actual means to judge others too, without strong repercussions or social rejection. But obviously, far more research is needed on this topic.

The study, “After God’s image: prayer leads people with positive God beliefs to read less hostility in others’ eyes“, was also co-authored by Sander L. Koole. It was published January 20, 2017.