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CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
Hey, everyone. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Cardiff Garcia. Today on the show is a more sober topic than we usually cover, and it's about what happens in the aftermath of big, catastrophic events, like a mass shooting or a natural disaster, like a hurricane. Usually, when these events happen, politicians will often say that they offer their thoughts and prayers to the victims. And then critics of those politicians will respond that the politicians should do something, like pass a law that makes these events less likely in the future or less damaging. But it turns out that some economists have actually been trying to calculate if, in fact, thoughts and prayers have a value - a dollar value.
I'm joined today by Sally Herships, who's in for Stacey Vanek Smith.
SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:
So two economists have put an exact dollar value on our prayers. And that number applies just to prayers; thoughts apparently aren't worth that much. And not only do our prayers now have a dollar value; they can also have a real financial impact on people who give to charity. But that impact is not what you might think.
GARCIA: Today on THE INDICATOR, Sally is going to sit down and speak with Dr. Linda Thunstrom, lead author of a new study about the value and the financial impact of prayers on those who have experienced a hardship. That is coming up after the break.
(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")
HERSHIPS: So today we're talking with Dr. Linda Thunstrom, an economist at the University of Wyoming and the lead author on a new study on the monetary value we place on thoughts and prayers in the aftermath of a disaster. Dr. Thunstrom gave $5 to test subjects. There were three groups - observant Christians, atheists and agnostics. Then she asked each of these three groups how much of that money - how much of their $5 they would be willing to give up to have someone pray for them.
I asked her why she was so interested in placing a financial value on prayer.
LINDA THUNSTROM: As economists, we are used to eliciting the value of goods and services that don't have a market. So we don't trade prayers in markets, just like we don't trade public land in markets or endangered species. But we still need to know how people value these things - and mostly for policy analyses, but also just to know, you know, how should we prioritize when it comes to policies?
HERSHIPS: So if I'm the Christian person, I'm presented with a list. Is that right? I can either get a prayer from a stranger, or I can get some cash.
THUNSTROM: Correct. So - and actually, what happened is we gave them cash to begin with. And then we asked them, how much of these - so they got $5 - so how much of these $5 are you willing to abstain to receive a prayer?
HERSHIPS: Oh, my gosh. And what did people say?
THUNSTROM: Yes. As our results show, a lot of people were willing to abstain some or all of their $5 in return for a prayer from a Christian stranger or a prayer from a priest.
HERSHIPS: Wait a minute. When you say abstain, it sounds to me like they're abstaining from prayer and keeping the money.
THUNSTROM: No. They were willing to abstain some of their money to instead get a prayer.
HERSHIPS: So they were willing to pay for a prayer...
HERSHIPS: ...Or give up some of their money for a prayer.
THUNSTROM: Yes, absolutely. And we found that, again, a lot of people were willing to give up all of their $5.
HERSHIPS: On the flipside of that, though, $5 is not all - not that much money. Do you think that if you'd been talking about hundreds or thousands of dollars, people would've reacted differently?
THUNSTROM: I guess I can only speculate that it's possible that if we had given them a hundred dollars instead, that could have meant that we got different results. So I think the main takeaway from this study is not so much the exact dollar amount, but the fact that people are willing to give up material support or money in return for these gestures and that there is a different group - the nonreligious - who are willing to give up money not to receive these gestures. But what that study finds is that we see very polarized values of how people value, especially prayers. We find that religious Christians value prayers, whereas we find that atheists and agnostics assign a negative value to the same gestures.
HERSHIPS: So the Christians were the ones who valued the prayer.
HERSHIPS: And how much - so how much did they - I mean, I hate to ask this question, but how much is a prayer worth?
THUNSTROM: What we find in our study is that a prayer from a stranger - and that's important to note, as well, that we are not asking for the value of prayers for somebody that you know, a loved one. They are only asked for the value of prayers from a stranger. So if it's from a Christian stranger, they value the prayer in our study at about 430...
HERSHIPS: Four hundred...
THUNSTROM: No, $4.30.
HERSHIPS: Are you worried at all that some people will say that even kind of trying to put a value on prayer might be disrespectful?
THUNSTROM: Yeah. Well, I think it can seem shocking. Again, as an economist, that is not something that we aren't used to. I mean, you know, we put values to lives. So when you think about, you know, what kind of speed limits should you have on the roads, well, you need to think about the cost and benefits of having a certain speed limit. So it's not that foreign to us. It is a foreign idea to a lot of people that - you know, do these gestures really have a monetary value? And we're not suggesting that they should be traded in markets. We're not suggesting that people should pay for these gestures or pay for prayers. Absolutely not.
HERSHIPS: This leads into kind of a second study that you're working on. It's a working paper, so it hasn't been published yet. Is that right?
THUNSTROM: Yeah, that's right. And so that study approaches the impact of thoughts and prayers from a different angle. And what I do there is I ask the participants in the study to donate to hurricane victims. And in one treatment, they are just asked to donate directly. And then in another treatment, I ask them to send a prayer before they are asked to donate. And in the last treatment, they are asked to take a moment to think about the hurricane victims before they are asked to donate.
And what I find is mixed results. It seems like when you pray before you donate, you donate less, which sort of makes sense, in a way. If you think that the prayer itself has an impact on the recipient, then the prayer can act as a substitute for the charity donations that you otherwise would've given.
HERSHIPS: How much less were people donating?
THUNSTROM: About a dollar.
HERSHIPS: So was it the same $5? They were given $5, and then...
THUNSTROM: Yes. But I - it's important to know that I don't find that for all studies. So you know, it could be that maybe I will give more to you if I know you, if we're friends, you know, and I pray for you. Maybe the empathy that that generates, you know, would make me give more.
HERSHIPS: And what do you think that politicians should keep in mind after having done this study?
THUNSTROM: Yeah, I think they should just be aware that when you call for a national prayer day, for instance, you know, it's important that you also follow that up with action and that, you know, there are contexts in which prayers might take away from action. You might be OK with that. But if you're not, that's something to keep in mind.
HERSHIPS: Linda Thunstrom, economist at the University of Wyoming and the lead author of a new study on the monetary value that we place on thoughts and prayers. Thank you so much.
THUNSTROM: Thank you so much for having me, Sally.
HERSHIPS: If you want to read more about Dr. Linda Thunstrom's studies, we'll post a link to her work at npr.org/money.
GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Lena Sansgarry (ph), edited by Paddy Hirsch. Our intern is Nadia Lewis. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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