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Replenishing Self-Control Through Prayer

German researchers report a few minutes of communion with a higher power can boost self-control.
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As many of us know all too well, self-control is a limited resource that can, and does, get depleted. Fortunately, several recent studies have revealed ways we can replenish our ability to resist temptation, ranging from watching reruns to gargling with glucose.

Now there’s evidence of still another method of getting ourselves back on track, and it’s a strategy as old as they come: Prayer.

A pair of German psychologists—Malte Friese of Saarland University and Michaela Wänke of the University of Mannheim—report people can exercise self-control without depleting their reservoir of that vital resource if they engage in “a brief period of personal prayer.” Their study is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

"Even brief social interactions can activate cognitive resources ... providing a cognitive boost that can benefit subsequent self-control attempts."

Their study featured 79 people (mostly women, and largely made up of psychology students). Forty-one (just over half of the total) described themselves as Christians; another 24 were atheists or agnostics, while 14 listed other religious affiliations.

Half began their session by engaging in five minutes of personal prayer; the others were instructed to spend those first five minutes thinking about anything of their choice. They then watched five minutes of humorous film clips. Half the members of each group (the prayers and the thinkers) were “asked to suppress all emotions that arise (as they watched the clips) and control their facial appearance"—an activity that takes effort and uses up one's self-control.

Afterward, everyone participated in a Stroop task, that famous test where blocks of letters are in color spell out the name of a different color. Participants were asked to rapidly indicate the color of the ink—a task that required strong self-control, since one’s first instinct is to go with the color being spelled out.

The results: Among the thinkers, those that suppressed their emotions during the film clips did less well on the test than those who had allowed themselves to laugh. As expected, their self-control had been depleted.

But this dynamic was not found among those who used that interlude to speak with God. Participants who suppressed their laughter and then prayed “exercised self-control ... but did not become depleted,” the researchers write.

How did the prayer keep their self-control robust? Friese and Wänke offer several possible explanations, but their analysis suggests it likely has to do with the fact that “people interpret praying as a social interaction with God.”

They note that previous research has found that “even brief social interactions can activate cognitive resources ... providing a cognitive boost that can benefit subsequent self-control attempts.”

If their interpretation is correct, prayer isn’t uniquely powerful in this regard. An intense, meaningful concentration with a close friend would presumably have the same effect.

But that hardly negates these findings. If you’re noticing self-control slipping away, and you feel a meaningful connection with a higher power, a few whispered words might make all the difference.