The cycle has become sadly predictable. Mass shooting, followed by offers of thoughts and prayers and little else.
Many have criticized this “thoughts and prayers” response as being an empty gesture – an attempt to look good without actually doing the hard work of helping.
Of course, offering our thoughts and prayers isn’t enough to solve the problem of gun violence, but it can’t hurt, right?
Actually, it can.
When we offer our thoughts and prayers in response to tragedy, we run the risk of falling prey to a psychological phenomenon known as “moral licensing“ where our initial good behavior can actually make us less likely to behave well in the future.
For example, researchers found that when they had people think about a time when they had previously helped someone, they were more likely to cheat on a later task.
As psychologists explain, we treat our behavior like a bank account, with good behavior earning us “credit” in our account.
When we deposit enough good deeds into our moral bank account to make us feel like a “good person,” we sometimes use this as an opportunity to slack off.
Now that we can easily broadcast our wishes of thoughts and prayers with a quick tweet or a like on Facebook, the threat of moral licensing looms large.
Now we are all in danger of publicly offering our thoughts and prayers, giving ourselves a pat on our backs for offering our support and then failing to do anything else.
But prayer was never meant to be a substitute for action. Jesus did not tell us to merely pray for those in need; he said to help them. Feed them. Clothe them. Welcome them.
Even for those who genuinely believe in the power of prayer, it is clear that prayer is not enough to solve social problems like poverty, climate change and gun violence.
So, how can we avoid falling prey to moral licensing? How can we make sure our efforts go beyond merely offering our thoughts and prayers in response to tragedies?
We must remind ourselves what we are praying for.
We can be aware of the psychological effects of publicly displaying our support.
We may have replaced the synagogues and street corners of the Pharisees with Facebook and Twitter, but we still face the same temptation that Jesus warned about: praying in order that others will see us.
While there might not be anything inherently wrong with offering thoughts and prayers on social media, we do need to be cognizant of how our socially visible behavior can affect our subsequent actions.
According to researchers, public tokens of support can activate our impression management motives.
And if we feel like our initial token action of support was enough to make us look good, we’ll be less likely to engage in further action.
However, researchers have also found a way to counteract this tendency. When people who initially publicly displayed their support focused on how their values aligned with the cause, they were more likely to contribute to the cause in meaningful ways.
If the focus of our thoughts and prayers is to look good in public, our prayers are likely to have a licensing effect on us.
But, if we focus on our commitment to our values rather than on our image, we can be more likely to act consistently with those values.
So, as we offer our thoughts and prayers in response to tragedy, let us remind ourselves why we are praying.
As we pray for peace, safety and comfort for those who mourn, let us also think about what we can do to promote peace, to make our communities safer and to comfort those who mourn.
Even for those of us who believe in the power of prayer, it is rarely the case that praying is the only thing we can do to help.
As we offer our thoughts and prayers, let us be careful not to bask in the warm glow of our spiritual halos. There is more work to be done.
Jen Zamzow has a Ph.D. in philosophy with a minor in cognitive science and teaches ethics online for UCLA and Concordia University Irvine. She writes about faith and doubt, meaning, morality, and motherhood at jenzamzow.com.