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Although some religious teachings have been used to justify aggression, most religious teachings promote peace in human affairs.
Researchers recently conducted a series of experiments to test the hypothesis that praying for others brings out the more peaceful side of religion by reducing anger and aggression after a provocation.
In Experiment 1, praying for a stranger led provoked participants to report less anger than control participants who thought about a stranger.
In Experiment 2, provoked participants who prayed for the person who angered them were less aggressive toward that person than were participants who thought about the person who angered them.
In Experiment 3, provoked participants who prayed for a friend in need showed a less angry appraisal style than did people who thought about a friend in need.
These results are consistent with recent evolutionary theories, which suggest that religious practices can promote cooperation among nonkin or in situations in which reciprocity is highly unlikely.
The benefits of prayer identified in this study don't rely on divine intervention: they probably occur because the act of praying changed the way people think about a negative situation, said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. He conducted the research with Ryan Bremner of the University of Michigan and Sander Koole of VU University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands
"We found that prayer really can help people cope with their anger, probably by helping them change how they view the events that angered them and helping them take it less personally."
The power of prayer also didn't rely on people being particularly religious, or attending church regularly, Bushman emphasized. Results showed prayer helped calm people regardless of their religious affiliation, or how often they attended church services or prayed in daily life.
Bushman noted that the studies didn't examine whether prayer had any effect on the people who were prayed for. The research focused entirely on those who do the praying.
When you are confronting your own anger, you may want to consider the old advice of praying for one's enemies. It may not benefit your enemies, but it may help you deal with the negative emotions.
R. H. Bremner, S. L. Koole, B. J. Bushman. "Pray for Those Who Mistreat You": Effects of Prayer on Anger and Aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Published online before print March 18, 2011; DOI: 10.1177/0146167211402215
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