The authors ground their study of prayer’s power in something called the “strength model” of self-control. The strength model suggests that our cognitive resources, like our physical resources, are limited. Going for a 1 mile jog would be incredibly difficult right after you’ve gone for a 30 mile jog, and resisting even the smallest temptation can be incredibly difficult if you’ve just spent an hour resisting larger ones. We run out of gas. So, how do we replenish these cognitive resources, or even increase our cognitive “endurance”? Gatorade and pasta? Researchers have, in all seriousness, found that ingestion of glucose can indeed increase self-control, but the scientists here proposed that prayer might be another means through which individuals protect themselves from breakdowns of will. Indeed, past work had already suggested such a relationship, showing that priming participants with words related to religion (e.g God, divine) buffered them against the effects of cognitive depletion.
The authors made use of two experimental paradigms to test the efficacy of prayer in preventing cognitive depletion. The first, called an emotion-suppression task, simply asked participants to watch a funny video but stifle all emotional responses, verbal and non-verbal, to the content. This requires a good amount of cognitive energy to pull off successfully. The second, called a stroop task, asked participants to indicate the ink color of various words flashed to them on a computer screen. The trick is that the words spell the names of various colors that are either consistent or inconsistent with the ink they are to identify. Check it out here. You’ll find that the inconsistent word/ink items are harder to respond to than the consistent items. Researchers have found that after cognitive depletion, this task becomes even harder. So, the authors had an elegant methodological question: will people who pray be able to avoid the depleting effects of emotion suppression and not show a deficit on the stroop task? In other words, will prayer give them the cognitive strength to perform well on both these challenging tasks?