I Helped! The Darker Side of Thoughts and Prayers

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

‘Thoughts and Prayers’ cover social media after almost any event these days. But is it as innocent as it seems in most cases?

n our modern online world, even how you react to tragedy can be marketable and exploitative

In the wake of the recent Christchurch shooting in New Zealand, we’ve seen a lot of emotional reaction and debate. Because why wouldn’t you? A horrific thing happened to dozens of innocent people, and was broadcast online for all to see (another issue causing much debate).

One positive, though, was the encouraging response by the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden. Amongst other things, her considered approach of promising action rather than offering platitudes has fuelled the already-building backlash against “thoughts and prayers”.

We all know how it goes; a horrendous incident/tragedy occurs somewhere unexpected (that there are many places where tragedy is expected/common is a whole other issue), and pundits, politicians, celebrities, influencers and anyone with a Facebook account quickly declares that they are sending “thoughts and prayers” to those affected.

Sadly, what was once surely just a way to express condolences has, in recent times, attracted much criticism and mockery. How did that happen? And why are people compelled to send ‘thoughts and prayers’ in the first place?

The need to ‘react’

Let’s be generous and say, what harm is there in sending thoughts and prayers? If you focus just on the act itself, there’s little to find issue with. But still, why do it at all?

One possible motivation is that, for those raised in the west at least, one thing our brains love/need, is a sense of autonomy. We have to feel we’re ‘in control’ of our lives and the world around us. We also have multiple cognitive biases seemingly ‘built in’ which lead us to assume the world is a fair and just place (despite the evidence).

So, when something undeniably dreadful happens to people who clearly don’t deserve it, it can set up a dissonance, or unease, in our brains. It challenges our sense of fairness and sense of control. We need to resolve this, or we experience stress and discomfort. Publicly stating that you’re sending thoughts and prayers is one way of doing this, and a relatively easy and harmless one.

However ineffectual it might be in the grand scheme, it’s still perceived as an action that has been taken, so helps resolve the mental discomfort caused by the awful events.

On top of this is the social pressure. Now that we’re all interconnected via social media, the risk of being the ‘odd one out’ is much greater than ever, and that can be incredibly stressful to a species like us. So, if everyone else is sending thoughts and prayers and changing their profile pic to include a relevant banner, actively not doing the same can often no longer feel like a passive act, it’s more like saying you don’t care. And who needs that sort of stress and judgement?

Grief and how to express it has always been a surprisingly public issue, and that’s more the case now than ever

The tricky nature of grief

Grief is a tricky emotion, one which affects us deeply. And that’s if it’s the loss of someone close to us, who we have a genuine, real connection to. It’s a mark of how social a species we humans are, that we can feel grief for those we’ve never met (e.g. celebrities) or even those we didn’t know existed before they were gone (e.g. disaster victims).

Because we feel strong emotions for those we’ve no real connection to, public grief for strangers is an often-confusing experience. For many, probably the majority, it could well be the case that they’re simply trying to find an appropriate response to deal with what they’re feeling. Saying “sending thoughts and prayers” out loud (or the online equivalent thereof) is one way of processing it.

However, as with anything inherently complicated and uncertain but still very common (e.g. parenting), people have strong opinions on how others should be grieving, or what’s considered ‘right’. A good example of this is Patton Oswalt’s response to people who condemned him for getting remarried “too soon” after his wife passed. How is it anyone’s business how a grieving widower finds happiness? And yet, many people believed it definitely was theirs.

How other people grieve, as long as it’s not harming anyone, is surely their business?

But then, what is they “are” causing harm, in some way?

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The path of least resistance

You can say it’s harmless to publicly state you’re sending ‘thoughts and prayers’ to those affected by tragedy or disaster.

But, on the other hand, who exactly does it benefit? The millions of thoughts and prayers will have as much effect on people they’re directed to as the arrangement of the stars in the sky have on your day to day life. As in, none whatsoever, no matter how many people might believe otherwise.

And presumably, those dealing with the horror that has been heaped on them aren’t spending hours searching the internet for people in distant countries being insufficiently moved by their experiences?

No, as stated just now, whether it’s by resolving the discomfort of not knowing how to react to tragedy, or how to express sympathy or grief, or just to avoid being thought ill of by those who are doing the same, the most logical outcome of ‘sending thoughts and prayers’ is to make the sender feel better, not the person they’re directed at.

Nothing inherently wrong with that, but it can easily become an inadequate substitute for genuinely helping. If there’s been a disaster, you could send money or fundraise to provide aid. If there’s been a massacre, you can do the same, or call out anyone sharing and promoting the toxic ideologies that fuelled it.

These things require cost, or effort. And the human brain is constantly evaluating effort and reward to see if an action is worth it. Reflexively sharing thoughts and prayers has the same qualities that mean ‘clicktivism’ or sharing ‘awareness campaigns’ are constantly being criticised; it means people expend very little effort to get the satisfaction of helping, but aren’t actually helping.

When this results in them not doing things that could be helpful, then it’s a problem.

Even a wishing well requires some form of investment.

The self-serving aspect

That sharing thoughts and prayers is more beneficial to the sender than the receiver is probably no surprise, and presumably most people doing it aren’t consciously thinking about it this way, it’s just an inherent trait of our complex brains.

But of course, there are those who seemingly do use this approach with far more cynicism. As high-profile celebrity deaths often demonstrate, there are some who seem to see public grief and mourning as a means of self-promotion.

As many have noted on many occasions, it’s often the case that publicly ‘sending thoughts and prayers’ (or similar platitudes) is largely a way of saying “Don’t forget to pay attention to me in all this”.

And this becomes even more sinister when you have the politicians or decision makers doing it, sending ‘thoughts and prayers’ to present an image of concern and respect, but also as a means to get out of taking actions that could genuinely help and/or prevent such things from happening again. This is doubly true when it’s actions they should already have taken because it’s their literal job.

Not singling anyone out here, but I’m sure some obvious candidates came to mind.

So sure, there are many reasons to send thoughts and prayers to those affected by tragedy, but those affected will hardly ever be the ones to benefit from them. If we could all face up to and accept that, then we might make some progress.

Dean Burnett covers issues like this in his books The Happy Brain and The Idiot Brain, and occasionally as co-host of the Brain Yapping Podcast with Rachel England.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, author and stand up comedian. He is the author of the international best -sellers The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for  the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education. He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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