Were U2 right when they said, “If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel?”

Duke University psychologist Patty Van Cappellen wants to know why people (mostly) don’t do headstands when they pray. Why is it that only a few positions — such as kneeling, bowing, clasping hands — are seen as prayerful? Are the common postures for prayer and worship just arbitrary customs, or do they have an effect on the ways people experience their faith?

In 2017 Van Cappellen, with assistance from experts in prayer, ritual, and emotion, began a three-year project to increase our understanding of what people do with their bodies during worship — and what effects their postures have on their emotions and experience of God. After building a taxonomy of the most common poses, Van Cappellen’s team will then launch a series of experiments to understand how posture affects people’s religious experiences, and to what extent religious posture might be universal and tied to human physiology, rather than formed simply by culture.

 


A CATALOGUE OF POSTURES

Van Cappellen’s team is beginning their work with surveys and observations relating to what worshippers typically do with their bodies during worship. People leaving Sunday services will be given questionnaires about the postures they used in the worship, and the ways those bodily positions added or underscored meaning for them. In a more in-depth study, volunteers will be observed through the course of an evening worship service to get a better sense of their actual postures, thoughts, and feelings moment by moment. In some cases, this will be correlated with physiological measurements like pulse and breathing rate. Because Van Cappellen’s team is located in North Carolina, the bulk of this research will be done with a focus on Christian worshippers, but the team will also develop surveys to build a catalogue of postures used in worship by Muslims in Turkey and Hindus in South India.


DOES POSTURE MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

Armed with a greater sense of the range of postures used by worshippers — and of the contexts and ascribed meanings for those postures — Van Cappellen’s group will work to find the effects that a given posture can have on a worshipper. Does physically bowing the head (as opposed to taking a neutral pose) make one’s prayers — and the emotional after-effect—more penitent and humble? Does raising one’s head and arms facilitate a greater sense of awe? If a person rarely kneels to pray, does kneeling have the same psychological and physiological effects as for someone who kneels as a regular part of her religious practice? Some of the results of these experiences will come through self-report, although Van Cappellen’s group is also adapting indirect measures to gauge what’s happening for the experimental participants. “We will use tasks to see whether, for example, humility is really salient in their minds,” she says. Participants will be shown a series of words, with the expectation that words related to current thoughts and emotions will be recognized more quickly than other words.

Physiological measurements will also be crucial to the experimental phases of the grant. “When we change posture, our body adapts,” Van Cappellen says. “What we’re interested in is whether these physiological changes are going hand-in-hand with some of the psychological changes. Are they facilitating certain psychological changes? If suddenly you’re standing and your heart beats faster, that can increase high arousal of positive or negative emotions.”

Any conclusions reached will have to deal with questions of correlation and causation: to what extent do these postures flow from certain religious experiences, to what extent do they shape them, to what extent is either of those phenomena the effect of conditioning and culture, and to what extent are they simply part of what it means, in mind and body, to be human?


POSING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

In designing the surveys and experiments for the project, Van Cappellen and co-investigator Mark Leary’s team at Duke has drawn on a range of consultants with the expertise necessary to explore an area that crosses disciplines. Indiana University’s Kevin Ladd is an expert on the psychology of prayer; the University of Connecticut’s Dimitris Xygalatas is an anthropologist of religious ritual; Barbara Fredrickson of UNC-Chapel Hill is a leader in the science of emotion. Because there is so little published research into the roles of posture in prayer and worship, early in the grant Van Cappellen put out an open call to the research community for information on any unpublished studies in the area. Since positive or interesting results are often more likely to be published, Van Cappellen wanted to be sure they weren’t simply going to try something that had already been shown not to work. This wasn’t the case: “It doesn’t seem like many people have done research with no findings, so that’s encouraging,”  she says. “I think it is truly uncharted territory.”

In recent years there have been several high-profile studies (and some high-profile criticism) relating to the psychology of posture, from “body language” to “power poses.” To ensure that whatever conclusions their research leads towards are robust and well-founded, Van Cappellen and her colleagues are making efforts to pre-register their hypotheses to guard against potential accusations of cherry-picking conclusions that are unrelated to their original research goals. “Since not much has been done on this topic, we can’t always have super-strong hypotheses,” she says. “Sometimes we just don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But at least we can say, well, this was an open research question we had and not just pretend that ‘yes, we thought that all along.’”

Whatever the individual results of her team’s studies, Van Cappellen hopes that a broader understanding of the ways that posture plays into religious experiences can offer insights into other fields as well, from architecture — where physical design cues can encourage people to raise their head to look up in awe, or assume more closed, humble positions — to education, where postures might be studied and practiced in terms of their potentially desirable social outcomes.

Even within religious studies, “there’s so much research done on religious belief that puts the locus of religion in the mind, or in the brain,” Van Cappellen says. “I think this approach is complementary and could lead to more studies that show how important the body is in contributing to religious experiences.”