Thoughts and Prayers - Do They Crowd out Charity Donations?

Forthcoming, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty

45 Pages Posted: 15 Nov 2018 Last revised: 18 Nov 2019

Date Written: October 31, 2019


For centuries, scholars have examined what motivates prosocial behavior. In the U.S., prosocial behavior is routinely accompanied by thoughts and prayers. Yet, the impact on prosocial behavior of such gestures is unknown. We examine how thoughts and prayers affect charity donations to victims of a major public risk – natural disasters. Our analytical framework suggests both thoughts and prayers increase empathy for those receiving such gestures, which may positively impact donations. However, we also find that prayers on behalf of others are regarded as helpful to recipients – we identify them as a moral action – which can generate a counter-veiling substitution effect on donations. On net, our framework suggests prayers crowd out donations to natural disaster victims, while thoughts do not. We test these predictions in three incentivized experiments with Red Cross donations to hurricane victims. Consistent with our model, our main experiment finds prayers reduce donations, while thoughts do not. Two follow-up experiments find results are robust to alternative hurricane locations but may be sensitive to other frames – we find no impact of thoughts or prayers on donations when donations are capped at small amounts. Nevertheless, our results provide the novel insight that prayers may have important effects on material aid in the wake of public catastrophes (in two out of three experiments they crowd out donations), which highlights the importance of research on the impact of prayers on prosocial behavior.

Keywords: thoughts; prayers; natural disasters; prosocial behavior; charity donations; moral actions

JEL Classification: D12; D64

Suggested Citation

Thunstrom, Linda, Thoughts and Prayers - Do They Crowd out Charity Donations? (October 31, 2019). Forthcoming, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Available at SSRN: or

Linda Thunstrom (Contact Author)

University of Wyoming ( email )

P.O. Box 3985
Laramie, WY 82071-3985
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics