Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 30 Number 2
Spring 2008

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Kevin Ladd and colleagues
Kevin Ladd's laboratory team stands on a labyrinth. Ladd is at far right.
Photo courtesy Kevin Ladd

Prayer poses
Courtesy Kevin Ladd and Kyle Messick, Ladd Laboratory, IU South Bend

Nearly 90 percent of Americans pray on a more or less regular basis. Nearly 60 percent pray at least once a day. Still, what prayer means remains elusive.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Prayer

by Jeremy Shere

Kevin Ladd has spent much of his life in prayer.

As a clergyman-in-training at the Princeton Theological Seminary and later as a pastor serving both United Methodist and Presbyterian (USA) churches, he not only led an active prayer life but thought deeply about the nature of prayer. Eventually, Ladd's curiosity led him toward academe.

"Within the United Methodist Church tradition we talk about experiencing a calling, and over time it became clear to me that my calling was changing," says Ladd, now an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University South Bend. "When I was working in local parishes, there weren't many people who got the same level of excitement out of, say, a factor analytical structure. So it became clear that my intellectual interests coupled with my faith were taking me in a different direction."

Ladd's evolving path took him to the University of Denver, where he earned a Ph.D. in social/experimental psychology, focusing on the topic of prayer. What he was after, and what continues to drive his research today, are these fundamental questions: What is prayer? What do people do when they pray?

In 2007, Ladd took a significant step toward finding answers. Thanks to a $735,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation--an independent philanthropy devoted to funding research in science, religion, and other disciplines--Ladd will spend the next three years working to understand the psychology of prayer.

Inward, Outward, Upward

Prayer is one of those nearly universal human behaviors for which we have no common psychological definition. There are several reasons. First, although William James, G. Stanley Hall, and other prominent founding figures of modern psychology took religion seriously, unobservable phenomena like emotions and prayer fell out of vogue as objects of study with the rise of behaviorism in the early 20th century. Only very recently, within the past several years, has religion regained widespread interest among psychologists.

Among the general public, though, prayer is clearly of interest. According to a General Social Survey on "Frequency of Prayer" (see the Web site of The Association of Religion Data Archives at for more information), nearly 90 percent of Americans pray on a more or less regular basis. A majority--nearly 60 percent--pray at least once a day.

But still, what prayer means remains elusive. Depending on whom you ask, it can be described as a form of direct communication with the divine, a form of self-therapy, or simple self-delusion. And there are probably as many kinds of prayers as there are people who pray. So from a psychological perspective, it's difficult to know what, exactly, we're talking about when we talk about prayer.

One way to solve that problem is to turn to theology. Over the centuries, theologians have defined prayer according to a widely accepted three-part structure: "Inward prayer" is prayer that functions as a means of self-reflection. "Outward prayer" refers to prayers about and for others, such as praying for a sick friend or relative, or prayers connected to relationships more generally. Finally, "upward prayer" is prayer as a means of connecting with the divine, typically spoken of as a prayer of praise.

In a paper published in 2006, Ladd and University of Denver colleague Bernard Spilka set out to examine these prayer types scientifically. "The categories have existed for a long time in theological literature, but lack the kind of data we deal with in the social sciences," Ladd says. "So we wondered if these categories make any difference in terms of how people actually pray?"

To find out, Ladd and Spilka interviewed more than 500 undergraduates at universities throughout the Midwest. What they found both validated the theological model of prayer and complicated how it plays out in the real world.

"In some sense it fits pretty well. People pray in ways that you can see as loosely related to the inward, outward, and upward schematic," Ladd says. "But people don't consciously, or even unconsciously, break prayer down into nice, clean categories. People like to mix their approaches, engaging different themes that emerge during the course of prayer."

For example, you might begin praying with the intention of looking inward, but soon self-examination takes an outward turn and encompasses the nature of your relationships with friends and family and with God. For most people, Ladd says, the categories inevitably intermingle. "Like many things we do, prayer is a mixture of motivations and intentions. It's not a unidimensional construct because people don't typically pigeonhole what they're doing. Prayer is ultimately an organic, dynamic process."

Over the past few years, Ladd and his colleagues have gone a long way toward establishing a systematic, scientifically rigorous schema of prayer in its myriad forms. Some of the conclusions may seem obvious. Many psychologists now agree that prayer is, on some fundamental cognitive level, concerned with forming and maintaining connections with one's sense of self, with others, and with God. Prayer is also understood as providing intellectual and spiritual structures through which to make sense of the world and one's place in it. For instance, many religions have prayers of mourning meant to help mourners make sense of and attribute meaning to death and loss.

Still, these general insights leave many questions unanswered. Why do people seek the kind of connection and structure that prayer can provide? What's happening in the brain when we pray? How, exactly, does prayer influence our thoughts and ways of viewing and understanding the world?

Photographs, Labyrinths, and Mannequins

As a psychologist intent on exploring the cognitive structures and social practices of prayer, Ladd is treading on largely uncharted territory. His research, he says, is mainly concerned with laying down basic categories and definitions. His methods are ingenious. Under the auspices of the Templeton Foundation grant, Ladd has designed a series of experiments that, if successful, could open entirely new paths of inquiry into the psychology of prayer.

The first experiment involves equipping test subjects with digital cameras, having them take pictures of things they consider to be spiritually important, and then asking them to provide captions. What Ladd and his colleagues want to test is the idea that when people focus on a specific kind of prayer, such as an inward, self-evaluative prayer, they may actually see the world in a different way. So someone praying about an internal concern may be prone to focus on small details in the outside world and take close-up shots of flowers or other objects, Ladd says.

Meanwhile, according to the hypothesis, others who are focused on the paradox of prayer--the notion that in order to gain control of your spiritual life you must recognize a higher power and, in doing so, relinquish some sense of control over your life--might be more apt to take photos of nature juxtaposed with human architecture, such as the wall of a building grown over with ivy.

"If we're right, and prayer actually does in part relate to how people see the physical world, you could take the same mode of investigation and use it for conflict resolution among people of the same religion or for people of different religions," Ladd says. "What happens if we say, here's a way that people are seeing the world--how about if you not walk in someone else's shoes but see through some else's spectacles? What happens if, through understanding their mode of prayer, you're able to literally see what they see as important?"

A second line of inquiry involves the labyrinth--an ancient spiritual tool used to focus prayer. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth does not attempt to fool and confuse those who enter it. Instead, a labyrinth simply guides you along a single, winding path toward the center and then back out. Traditionally, worshippers pray on the way in toward the labyrinth's center, pray again upon reaching the center, and pray on the way out--a system that dovetails nicely with the inward-upward-outward model.

What Ladd wants to determine is what worshippers take away from the labyrinth experience. He plans on testing four groups: one consisting of people directed to pray while navigating a labyrinth, another group told to pray while walking in a straight line covering a distance equal to that of the labyrinth's circular path, a third group instructed to simply wander around a room as they pray, not following any particular path, and a fourth group asked to pray while sitting still. The point, Ladd says, is to inquire into the relationship between prayer and movement.

"People often think of prayer as a sedentary activity, but many people report praying while shopping or raking leaves or walking the dog. We want to investigate how movement, specifically through the structure of a labyrinth, affects the prayer experience."

Ladd's third experiment is perhaps the strangest and most inventive. Participants will be ushered into rooms containing life-sized mannequins arranged in classic prayer poses. For example, you might enter a quiet room and behold a mannequin, clad in a hat, wearing sweatbands on its wrists, sitting on a chair with head bowed and hands folded. You would then spend several minutes alone with the figure, observing it from all angles, and finally fill out a questionnaire asking for your thoughts about the mannequin as though it were a real person. In an interesting twist, participants will then take the mannequin's place, assuming the same prayer position and wearing the model's hat and wristbands while in prayer. After praying for several minutes, the researchers will interview the subject to see how closely their prayer experience resembles the experience they ascribed to the mannequin.

"We're trying to get at what happens when people see others engaged in religious practices, because that often links back to stereotypes and prejudice. We want to see what triggers and perhaps defuses those stereotypes," Ladd says.

Science and Religion

Ladd is currently in the early stages of his research supported by the Templeton Foundation, which will occupy him for the next several years. Outside of his academic work, he is still active in United Methodist and Presbyterian (USA) churches and still leads an active prayer life. As a scientist with a religious background and intimate knowledge of prayer, Ladd is in a unique position to shed light on a central component of people's sense of the spiritual. What too often hinders other scientists studying prayer, he says, is their lack of understanding of prayer's most basic tenets. For instance, one of the hottest approaches to the psychology of prayer involves neuroimaging, in which brain researchers use fMRI and other imaging technologies to scan people's brains while they pray.

"But those studies are often flawed," Ladd says, "because the scientist will tell the subject to recite the Lord's Prayer or the 23rd psalm, then tell them to stop, then tell them to start again."

"That's not how prayer works," he continues. "First, it's not clear at all that recitation and prayer are synonymous. Second, prayer is not something you turn on and off when you're ordered to. So it's hard to tell [with fMRI studies] whether you have meaningful data regarding prayer or a lot of beautiful, expensive artwork when you're done."

For truer results, Ladd says, psychologists must first understand the fundamental components of prayer and of what people are doing when they pray. And perhaps most important, scientists must resist the temptation to rationalize prayer to conform with principles of scientific inquiry.

"Ultimately people think of prayer as a way of relating to God. That's an assertion that, as a psychologist, I can't test," Ladd says. "If I pray for my grandmother and my grandmother dies, then as a scientist, I might have to say that the prayer had no effect.

"But from a theological perspective, prayer is not typically regarded as simply equivalent to a medication that can be administered or withheld in a physical sense, so that would be a ludicrous interpretation," he continues. "The theologian would say the effects of prayer are not limited to the physical realm. I engaged in prayer, I was there with my grandmother, and even if she did die, the act of praying brought us closer together. That's why in our lab we don't try to judge whether prayer is a rational practice or not. We know that most Americans engage in prayer. As psychologists, we want to understand what they're doing."

Jeremy Shere is a freelance writer in Bloomington, Ind.