Prayer makes non-believers more likely to cheat, study finds

New research indicates religious individuals are more likely to cheat but that this tendency can be diminished by prayer. But the study in Religion, Brain & Behavior suggests that prayer can have the opposite effect on non-believers.

“A number of studies show that religious primes increase moral behavior via fear of God. While petitionary prayers prime religiosity and thus serve as religious primes, they also often imply and supply external attributions of control. External attribution of control have been associated with decreased moral behavior, including cheating,” said study author Victoria K. Alogna of the University of Otago.

“For these reasons, we thought that petitionary prayer could have the opposite effect as other religious primes, decreasing moral behavior via external attributions of control. We tested these competing hypotheses in this study.”

In the study, 98 non-religious and 153 religious Americans completed an online Swahili translation task that provided them an opportunity to cheat by looking up words. The participants were asked to guess the meanings of 17 Swahili words using only their intuition. They were informed that the highest scoring participants would receive a $100 reward.

Before completing this task, half of the participants were asked to compose a prayer. They were told that “research suggests that writing a prayer, even if you don’t believe in God, can improve performance on intuitive tasks.”

The researchers found that religious participants were more inclined to cheat than non-religious participants overall. The prayer request, on the other hand, was associated with a decreased likelihood of cheating among religious participants — but an increased likelihood of cheating among non-religious participants.

“Although in need of replication and extension, our results suggest that asking God for help may have different implications for moral behavior, depending on participants’ religious beliefs, with prayer decreasing cheating among believers (by reducing their inflated cheating) and increasing cheating among non-believers. This may be due to believers’ and nonbelievers’ different conceptions of their own and God’s control,” Alogna told PsyPost.

All research includes some limitations, however, and the current study is no exception.

“Religiosity, attributions of control, and views about God were measured before participants were randomly assigned to pray or not pray. Participants in both conditions were probably primed with their attitudes and beliefs prior to praying, which may have strengthened the effects of prayer and served as a religious priming manipulation in the control,” Alogna explained.

“Our cheating measure only captures one domain of cheating, and results may not generalize to others (such as infidelity or fraud). Lastly, this study focused on a mostly Christian population, which implies certain schemas about God and prayer that may limit the generalizability of these results to other populations,” Alogna said.

The study, “The divergent effects of prayer on cheating“, was authored by Victoria K. Alogna and Jamin Halberstadt.