Supplication and Statistics

In yesterday’s post, I linked a video which deals with two possible outcomes of supplication (i.e., a prayer request): the thing requested happens or the thing requested does not happen.  When the thing requested does or does not happen, the non-outcome may be interpreted in a third way, which is not an actual outcome but rather is an interpretation dependent on the two possible outcomes: one must wait — the thing may or may not happen in the future (which leads us back to two possible outcomes).

If the thing requested is equally probable, this is akin to a fair coin flip: there is a 50 percent of it happening and a 50 percent chance of it not happening.  Those are pretty decent odds in a world filled with contingency, chance, and a fair amount of chaos.

Just ask the roulette gambler who plays red/green only.  If such a gambler only plays a few spins, there is a chance that he or she will beat the odds and win on 5 out of 6 spins.  If, however, the gambler begins feeling “the luck” and continues playing, the laws of probability (a regression toward the mean, which can be seen at the high point or center line of a bell curve) will ensure that on a thousand spins, the outcome will be close to 50/50 and if the gambler is betting the same amount every spin, will end up where he started (though considerably more intoxicated with all the free drinks).  The gambler will probably feel neither lucky nor unlucky, but will have a hangover the next day.

What this means in terms of prayer is this: the outcome (or perceived efficacy of the prayer) is highly dependent on the nature of the request.  If someone makes a request that — during the normal course of day to day life (averaged over time) — is equally likely to happen or not happen, then chances are that such requests will appear to be granted about half the time.  These seem like decent odds for an act that requires little by way of expenditure.  It may also create the illusion of causation.

Moreover, the reinforcement that accompanies this perceived outcome will be substantial: when it appears that 50% of all prayer requests result in the fulfillment of the wish, there will be few disincentives to stop praying.  Given the widespread human tendency to overestimate and overinterpret positive outcomes, the perception will be that prayer — under these limited circumstances, is efficacious.  There will be little disincentive to stop praying.

The incentives can be further increased by making prayer requests general or vague.  Those who ask for happiness, health, stability, success, love, healing, or guidance will — given enough time and absent pathology — tend to experience these things due to the normal fluctuations of daily existence.  Averaged over time, these things are likely to occur though there will be oscillations (i.e., deviations).

The only disincentive that might arise is if one consistently makes specific requests that are unlikely to occur during the course of one’s life.  Thus, if I pray to win the lottery, have Catherine Zeta-Jones fall in love with me, inherit Warren Buffet’s fortune, become master of Bora Bora, appointed research professor at Princeton, and publish a 10 million copy best-seller, I am likely to be disappointed in all these requests.  At some point, I will probably stop praying or will modify my requests to increase the odds of perceived success.

Given these facts, it seems likely that prayer and supplication are here to stay.  Correlation is not, however, causation.

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