People who pray are nice

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by Neil Godfrey

Praying mantis
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In 2002 results of research into the relationship between personality and spirituality were published in Pastoral Psychology.

If you’re one of those arm-chair anti-religionists who speculates that people who pray the most probably have some psychological malfunction and are expressing a need to communicate with an imaginary friend given their inability to relate to the real world, then the research findings are against you.

If you have rejected western religious traditions and think you are a much nicer person than the average for having found value in the regular practice of Eastern meditation instead, then again the science is against you. But what do you care for quantifiable observations of this crass material world!

The findings were that those who pray the most (in the conventional or traditional sense of the word) are jolly good types who fit in well with wider social expectations. Plato would be happy. Wasn’t he the one who said a strong dose of conventional religious belief and fear was a necessary thing to keep the masses well-behaved and in line?

To be specific, the researchers conclude (using the Eysenck personality model) that those who pray the most are at the low end of the “psychoticism” dimension of personality and are thus most likely to be found to be

empathic, unselfish, altruistic, warm, peaceful and generally more pleasant, although possibly less socially decisive individuals.

The authors of the study note that Eysenck himself styled such types as “tender-minded”. Spot on. Just what the author of Ephesians 4:32 ordered: “be tenderhearted”.

So are those Christians who clearly lack empathy, warmth and peace advertizing that they don’t pray as much in secret as they ought?

I’m thinking back on my prayer-full days. We were admonished that a half-hour daily prayer was the minimum. An hour a day was what was really encouraged. And during that particular phase of my religious life I know I was not the only one who would feel very out-of-sorts, very anti-social, uptight, if I did not get in at least my half-hour shot each morning.

To make more serious sense of this finding it is helpful to understand something of the Eysenck’ personality dimensions upon which they are grounded.

Eysenck and his wife proposed that our personalities are made up of three dimensions, and each of us has varying strengths of each of these dimensions. From Wikipedia’s Eysenck’s Personality Questionnaire:

Psychoticism Extraversion Neuroticism
Aggressive Sociable Anxious
Assertive Irresponsible Depressed
Egocentric Dominant Guilt Feelings
Unsympathetic Lack of reflection Low self-esteem
Manipulative Sensation-seeking Tense
Achievement-oriented Impulsive Moody
Dogmatic Risk-taking Hypochondriac
Masculine Expressive Lack of autonomy
Tough-minded Active Obsessive

Each of these three dimensions is a sliding scale. The fewer traits one displays in each of these three, the more one falls into the “Socialisation – Introversion — Stability” end of their respective continuums (or continua, for the Latin-obsessives.)

For alternatives and refinements to this personality model see the Wikipedia article as well as the one on Hans Eysenck himself.

It’s that first column, the Psychoticism-Socialisation dimension, that Eysenck related to religiosity and that is relevant to this study:

The conclusion to emerge from these studies is that psychoticism is the dimension of personality fundamental to individual differences in prayer. Eysenck’s wider theory on the relationship between personality and religiosity (Eysenck, 1998) is able to account for this finding in terms of conditioning into tender-minded social attitudes. According to this theory religion belongs to the domain of tender-minded social attitudes. Tender-minded social attitudes are a function of conditioning and individuals who record low scores on the dimension of psychoticism condition more readily . . .

This broader theory hinges on the notion of conditioning into acceptance of those social and religious values generally approved by wider society. (my emphasis)

We are social animals by nature, so it looks like religion may have something of a head start as a form of social adhesive. Belief in the supernatural or religion appears to be, after all, one of our “human universals” as a cultural species.

Where does this leave the meditator?

So where does all of this leave those social rebels who opt for Eastern meditation?

Well, they turn out to be found at the psychoticism end of the psychoticism-socialisation continuum. This end of the continuum points to a person

as being cold, impersonal, hostile, lacking in sympathy, unfriendly, untrustful, odd, unemotional, unhelpful, lacking in insight, strange, with paranoid ideas that people were against him.

Thus according to the findings of this study,

Eastern meditation appears to provide an alternative spirituality for individuals who seek a spiritual dimension to life but who are more likely to resist conditioning into acceptance of those social and religious values more generally approved of by wider society.

I do wonder if the same results would be found in an Asian society where meditation is more the cultural norm and traditional forms of Christian prayer are very much practiced by a minority. But then again, Buddhists and Taoists can be seen praying in a western conventional sense often enough throughout Asia, too.


Francis (1996) identified several theories capable of linking personal prayer with low psychoticism scores.

  • If personal prayer is conceptualized as a response of unworthiness or guilt in the presence of the deity, it might be hypothesised that the tough-minded individual would be less concerned with such feelings.
  • If personal prayer is conceptualized as an empathic response to the needs of others, it might be hypothesised that the tough-minded individual would be less aware of such needs.
  • If personal prayer is conceptualized as the expression of an intimate relationship with God, it might be hypothesised that the tough-minded individual would be less capable of forming and sustaining such a relationship.

(page 3 of the article, my formatting and emphasis)

Perhaps studies like these will help us understand the reason for the success (and need?) of religion in our species. I’d also be interested to compare studies undertaken by researchers with opposing, or simply no, spiritual orientations at all. Another perspective would be from Muslim and Jewish researchers investigating their broader societies.


With special thanks to the blog reader who brought my attention to the research publication discussed here.

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “People who pray are nice”

  1. Yes but there is a problem with such studies: the dichotomies in the multiple choice questions are themselves ideological and question begging. I find it impossible to give honest answers to these and to similar political questionnaires.

    1. I understand the scepticism. But I notice in the study that references are regularly made to comparable studies elsewhere. One study can never be conclusive. But probability of valid answers is increased when such studies (and we are talking of a thousand respondents across society, not just within a single religious group) are set alongside those that have gone before and those that must follow.

  2. I made several statements, some flippant, in this post that implied a causal relationship between prayer habits and social behaviour. I should not have. The study informs us of correlation only; not causality.

    1. The correlation is interesting, nonetheless. And I think most of us can figure out when you are having fun or speculating, etc. vs. offering a serious causal relationship. But in case not, your comment here is appreciated.

      Importantly, in addition to correlation of prayer and meditation to psychoticism scores (and it doesn’t appear we’re talking at all about only extremes of scale here), the study found that prayer and meditation are independent of both neuroticism and extraversion. So, maybe some of your remarks about incorrect correlation aren’t so flippant, when addressing others’ common speculations.

      1. Yes, I liked the absence of correlation between prayer and the scales of neuroticism and extraversion. It was encouraging to know my past life was not completely steeped in neurotic instability or otherwise unhealthy introversion.

  3. A reason for the (need) of religion from the scientific community.

    Neil, once again your reply forces the inexpressible state: where I see white you see black. I turn completely away from Christianity to the scientific guild for what I take to be a statement of the ultimate standard for judging the legitimacy of rational thought. The tho ught of the world’s greatest physics, thus the greatest rational thinkers, “the founders and grand theorists of modern (quantum and relativity) physics: Einstein. Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Eddington, Pauli, de Biogue, Jeans and Plank, virtually the entire pantheon of perennial philosophers, and they all reached the conclusion that a key tenet of perennial philosophy is that in mystical consciousness subject and object become one in the act of knowing; they were also aware that certain philosophers claimed that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Bohr’s Complementarity Principle supported this mystical idea, because, it was said, in order for the subject to know the object, it had to “interfere” with it, and that proved that the subject-object duality had been transcended by modern physics. None of these physicists believed this assertion. Bohr himself stated quite plainly that “the entire notion of complementarity does in no way involve a departure from our position as detached observers of nature.” Accordingly, for these reasons these theorists rejected the “physics supports mysticism” view. Their critique, which is not altered by any particular advance in physics, is a logical critique that cuts at right angles to any possible new discovery – it Is simple, straightforward and profound; at one stroke, it cuts across virtually everything written on the supposed parallel between physics and mysticism. Briefly the critique is this: In the mystical consciousness, Reality is apprehended directly and immediately, meaning without any mediation, any symbolic elaboration, any conceptualization, or any abstractions; subject and object become one in a timeless act that is beyond any and all forms of mediation.” (Ken Wilber).

  4. Yes, I read this with the same amount of academic scepticism you did. Lousy mathematics get you a paper buried somewhere in a bog accessible to only future researchers needing a reference within their literature survey chapters..

    But in this case, the relevance would confine it to a school of divinity..

    Mind you, the term “pastoral psychology” only gives me just a little bit more ammunition on how to debate people who have forgotten simple hypothesis testing.

    Thanks Neil,

    The next time I have a few psychologists over for a feed.. we can work the whiteboard even better for hilarity…

  5. Praying and meditation, much like ritual practice, are all real phenomena that derive out of human psychology and biology. Of course, they can often be a way to wish-away cognitive dissonance when you start to realise that magic like Jesus and reincarnation are at best metaphors, and probably just nonsense.

  6. “To be clear”, I find it beyond any level of legitimate rational thinking that one can stand self-assured, immune from all self-examination, when faced with this indisputable fact: “Many of the world’s finest thinkers, including some notable scientist, have espoused mysticism. (Paul Davies, Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Adelaide in Australia) This includes the world’s greatest physicist, the grand theorists of modern (quantum and relativity) physics: Einstein, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Eddington, Pauli, de Brogue, Jeans, and Plank. All having concluded that physics deals with shadows and symbols, not reality, to go beyond physics is to head toward the meta-physical or mystical. Mathematician Rudy Rucker writes: “The central teaching of mysticism is this: Reality is One. The practice of mysticism consists in finding ways to experience this unity directly. No door in the labyrinthine castle of science opens directly onto the Absolute. But if one understands the maze well enough it is possible to jump out of the system (bound in sense perceived reality) and experience the Absolute for oneself.” The absolute door to the “maze” is first to come to believe the Absolute is.

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