What "thoughts and prayers" actually do

For those that aren’t religious and do not pray, according to Ladd, the first half of “thoughts and prayers” offers a secularized alternative—much like “happy holidays” is to “merry Christmas.” It allows participation in the same communal ritual, which can compel a sense of social cohesion.

While praying itself may be a natural reaction to tragedy, broadcasting on social media that one is praying contains an element of performance. But if a tweet or Facebook post does indeed reflect an underlying genuine prayer, research shows it may affect health outcomes—for the person praying. A longitudinal analysis of the health of those praying, or engaged in formal religious gatherings, post-9/11 found that individually-practiced spirituality was associated with more positive emotional states. Attending group religious gatherings was, on top of this, associated with fewer new mental ailments and fewer intrusive thoughts about the tragedy. The paper’s author, Daniel McIntosh, is careful not to draw any causal inference from the data, but the association between mental-health outcomes and praying may expose the persistence of “thoughts and prayers”: There’s a positive-feedback loop for the person offering the platitude.