When tragedy occurs, people often struggle for a reaction.
On Nov. 5th, 2017, 26-year-old Devin Kelley opened fire in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, shocking the closely knit community and claiming the lives of 26 people. As the news spread, politicians and celebrities offered their condolences.
That’s when the “thoughts and prayers” started to roll in. On social media, the phrase reigns supreme; it is, after all, a simple and widely accepted way to show support for victims and their loved ones.
But recently, we’ve seen a pushback against thoughts and prayers. Writing for The Atlantic, Ben Rowen made the case that the phrase is a distinctly American phenomenon and offered a few scientific studies as evidence that “thoughts and prayers” are ultimately useless.
Titled “What Science Says About ‘Thoughts and Prayers,'” Rowen’s piece ignited controversy on social media, but it seems to raise a good point: When responding to tragedy, “thoughts and prayers” aren’t enough.
However, there are problems with Rowen’s approach to determining “what science says” about the issue.
First, few people would make the case that “thoughts and prayers” are actually literally effective; the gesture is simply intended to let victims know that they have support. Rowen also cites medical studies to prove that prayer is ineffective, but those studies’ authors explicitly state that they’re not trying to make judgments on the value of prayer.
To figure out why people send their “thoughts and prayers” after a disaster—and whether people should stop using the phrase—we spoke with Kathryn Kuhn, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Sociology and Anthropology department at Saint Louis University. Kuhn’s research interests include public responses to major tragedies, and she tells Urbo that sending “thoughts and prayers” is an understandable reaction.
However, there are a few things to keep in mind before sending that post-tragedy tweet out into the world. For instance…
1. People often say “thoughts and prayers” when they’re not sure what else to do.
When a tragedy occurs, online responses mirror in-person reactions. They’ve got three basic options for responding to the tragedy: fighting it (through donations or calling their senators, for instance), fleeing from it (by ignoring it), or freezing. Kuhn says that “thoughts and prayers” posts fall into the third category.
“It’s a very common thing to say,” Kuhn says. “People are overwhelmed. They might think, ‘I don’t know what to do, I’ll just share this thing.’ …It’s a fairly paralyzing thing to hear about something like [the hurricanes affecting] Puerto Rico; what’s one person going to do?”
And to be clear, expressing “thoughts and prayers” didn’t become popular just recently, although the phrase has changed in recent years.
“It used to be, ‘Our prayers are with you,’ but now it’s ‘thoughts and prayers,’ so as not to alienate anybody who may not think that prayers are the answer. It makes it more inclusive, you could argue.”
Why don’t people write something more personal? Essentially, they’re overcome by the news.
“When you don’t know what to say, you just draw upon the cultural repertoire, what’s familiar to you,” Kuhn says. “It’s almost a ritual. I think it’s detrimental to say ‘I did that, I showed my concern, I’m done.’ …But during Hurricane Harvey, you had people going down there from across the country. I think that when people can help, they will.”
In other words, just because someone sends their “thoughts and prayers,” there’s no reason to believe that they’re not helping in other ways. Still…
2. Social media has made “thoughts and prayers” more annoying.
Kuhn says that, in a disaster, social media is something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a vital tool for helping people spread information. After the Boston Marathon tragedy in 2013, for instance, community members created and shared a Google document to provide free housing to strangers after hotels closed. And as Scientific American writes, social media has become an integral part of government disaster response plans.
“For example, when Virginia Tech happened, my niece was going there at the time, and we knew a lot of people,” Kuhn says. “Social media was used by students to say ‘I am okay,’ which was great, because the cell phone lines were down. But by the same token, the [news media] was there immediately…you’re inundated with these images and numbers, and the media plays up the tragedy.”
As people struggle to react to the news, they share their condolences, and they resort to the same phrases that they’ve seen other people use. The “thoughts and prayers” quickly start to spread across social media.
“It has something of a social contagion effect,” Kuhn says. “They say, ‘Oh, other people are posting that they’re thinking of the victims, I’ll do that too. Or they’ll just share a photo with a candle lit, something like that.”
But as these well-intentioned gestures spread, they can become obnoxious. To many people, prayers don’t seem to effect meaningful change, and offering simple condolences seems like taking the easy way out.
“[The phrase] does come across sometimes as a taken-for-granted thing to say,” Kuhn says. “It’s almost a ritual: ‘Okay I did that, I showed my concern, I’m done.'”
And as “thoughts and prayers” post spread, they become more annoying to people who want actual change, either in terms of legislation, charitable assistance, or attitudes toward a particular issue like mental health.
“People get tired of hearing the same thing over and over,” Kuhn says. “…Especially in the last few years, there have been so many incidents; people have social problems fatigue.”
3. It’s not the only common phrase we use when reacting to tragedy.
Kuhn says many other phrases pop into the national lexicon after a major tragedy. For instance, after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the phrase “Boston Strong” became wildly popular.
During the 2017 World Series, Houston fans showed up to the ballpark with “Houston Strong” signs, showing their strength following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Football players from the University of Tennessee wore “Florida Strong” helmet stickers during a September game in Gainesville, demonstrating their support for their rivals following Hurricane Irma’s landfall. In Las Vegas, country superstars united for the “Vegas Strong” benefit concert following the events of Oct. 1st.
Following the attack in Sutherland Springs, “Texas Strong” became the newest iteration of the “strong” hashtag to support an area dealing with a major crisis.
“‘Be strong’ seems interesting; what does it really mean, exactly?” Kuhn asks. “It’s a way of expressing concern, kind of a ‘go team’ sort of thing. In Boston, people took it and made it their own. In Virginia Tech, ‘we will prevail’ came to the forefront.”
The phenomenon of using phrases like this isn’t limited to major events. After a personal tragedy, people often say things like, “If there’s anything I can do, give me a call.” Kuhn says this comes from the same place as “thoughts and prayers.”
“It has almost the same effect [as ‘thoughts and prayers’], because people are unlikely to call,” Kuhn says. “It’s really a way of making the person who’s sending that message feel better.”
Science seems to back up the idea that thoughts and prayers can actually be beneficial in their own ways. Through several studies, Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar showed that a half-hour of meditation per day can change the size of several parts of the brain, improving a person’s ability to deal with stress—and the person’s sense of compassion. Scientist Andrew Newberg conducted similar studies on Franciscan nuns and showed that prayer yields the same type of results.
Of course, some people offering their “thoughts and prayers” won’t actually sit down and think about the victims. That still doesn’t mean that their offers of condolences are empty gestures. People draw on these shared phrases when making social media posts, but the phrases may also build awareness and compel people to donate to worthy causes.
4. The biggest backlash against the phrase seems aimed at politicians, who might want to start avoiding saying it.
Another possible reason for the adverse reactions to “thoughts and prayers”: politics in general, along with the atmosphere surrounding the current presidential administration.
“The new president has generated a lot of activism, so people are saying ‘do something.’ People are marching right now, [there are] a lot of people in the streets,” says Kuhn. “I think part of [the backlash] is that we’re tired of people sitting back and doing nothing about social problems.”
Of course, that’s not entirely fair to the people who post about “thoughts and prayers,” as they’re simply showing their compassion and grief. There’s nothing bad or unhealthy about that type of expression. Besides, the typical social media user has a limited ability to effect change—while they might donate to a cause or express support for a political position, they might not have the capacity to do much more.
“Thoughts and prayers,” therefore, are mostly benign. Except, perhaps, in one instance.
“When people are in a position where they can do something, that’s a different story than the general public,” Kuhn says. “What’s Joe the plumber going to do about this stuff? But people in lawmaking positions, sometimes they can do something, but they choose not to. So in that case, that’s seen as detrimental by certain people.”
Whether or not you agree with that will probably depend on your political views. In 2015, President Obama was careful to note that “our thoughts and prayers are not enough” while consoling victims at an Oregon college—and proposing legislation.
And in October 2017, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut tweeted a more pointed response to other members of Congress following the tragedy in Las Vegas:
“To my colleagues: your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers,” Murphy wrote. “None of this ends unless we do something to stop it.”
So, is the backlash against “thoughts and prayers” justified?
Yes and no. Ultimately, “thoughts and prayers” may not do much for the victims of a tragedy, and the phrase may be perceived as hollow if not followed up with action.
That doesn’t mean that the people who share their condolences after a tragedy aren’t being sincere, however, and it doesn’t mean that they’re not trying to help in other ways.
There’s certainly no reason to tell your family and friends to avoid “thoughts and prayers” at all costs. Railing against a phrase is ultimately useless, and shaming someone on social media for sending their “thoughts and prayers” doesn’t really help anyone.
But for people in positions of power, there’s a legitimate gripe here: While there’s nothing wrong with sending thoughts and prayers to victims, there’s no substitute for taking action to stop these types of tragedies—manmade or natural—from happening again.