Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What Kind of Evidence for Effective Suicidality?

I recently wrote a post called "The Mathematics of Misery," which explored Becker and Posner's idea of effective suicidality. In brief, it may be that miserable people value their lives so little that they rationally accept gambles that happy people would never accept, because they plan to commit suicide if the gamble does not pay off. The authors connect their model to many stories we are familiar with, and find greater explanatory power in their model than in others. The model is particularly appealing to me, because it accords well with my introspective experience as a bona fide, not-breathing-for-a-while-there suicide attempter.

But there are alternative explanations for such Hail-Mary, seemingly irrational choices (not the least of which is actual irrationality). How might we begin to test such a theory?

One obvious choice would be to study the connection between "losing" at a prospective suicide-gamble activity and actual suicides. If unsuccessful participants in the activity do commit suicide at a high rate, the theory is supported - so long as we assume that some higher-than-baseline percentage of the effectively suicidal "follow through" on their suicide plans. (A plan need not be followed for it to be a cognitive reality upon which decisions are based.)

How about investigating whether the strong correlates of suicide are also strong correlates of the candidate "gamble" behaviors?

"Effectively suicidal" behavior may have a different etiology than actual suicide attempts, but there are many reasons to believe that if effective suicidality exists, it is another aspect of the suicide drive, and that they share a common cause. In addition to failed social belonging and burdensomeness, the strongest predictor of suicide in Thomas Joiner's model is competence: the ability to carry out the act of suicide. Competence, as Joiner outlines in his book, is learned; "provocative" preparatory behaviors systematically precede suicides, as if one must train oneself to do it, bit by bit. (This is one function of intentionally cutting one's skin.)

Given that people must achieve competence over time in order to successfully commit suicide, we would expect a continuum of provocative, suicide-preparatory behaviors - and both from introspection and from examples in the Becker-Posner paper, many dangerous gambles are also suicide-preparing.

Let's say we could agree on some strong correlates of suicide, specifically things that seem to cause suicide that also would be expected to cause people to become effectively suicidal (that would make circumstances unacceptable to them, as JasonSL puts it), hence to take a bad gamble/engage in provocative/preparatory behaviors. Let's say I have five or ten candidate behaviors for effective suicidality, and some of them really strongly correlated with the things that suicide really strongly correlates with. Would that be evidence of anything?

Any other suggestions for (a) how to support or knock down effective suicidality (revealed unacceptability) and (b) candidate behaviors?

4 comments:

  1. Sister Y,

    I'm pleased that my (to my knowledge, novel) concept of revealed (un)acceptability has found a place in your project. I want to dedicate some time to this, but right now I want even more to finish my beer and go to bed, so I'll have to offer more later.

    For the time being, however, it's also important to be aware of the bad gambles people do who are probably not suicidal. That is, you have to show that effective suicidality relates to greater-than-baseline bad gambles.

    I suspect that all of us, all along the utility-accrual spectrum, make bad gambles far more often than we realize, as well as fail to make good gambles. Right now I'm gambling that the momentary pleasure of enjoying a second drink before bed won't vitiate my sleep quality such that the pleasure is outweighed by feeling anemic tomorrow. This is probably a bad bet, but I'm pretty sure I'm not effectively suicidal.

    I have a hard time failing to find ways, at first crack at least, to defeat claimed anchors for a baseline level of bad-gambling among humans.


    **In related news, I've started a blog. Less unified and usually less eloquent than Sister Y's, but I hope you find at least one post to spur your thinking -- the second- and fourth-oldest should be right up the alley of this blog's readership.**

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  2. Very happy to hear that!

    Yes, so clearly there are limits to what our choices/actions reveal about our inner states. I'm hoping to fill in some blanks (reading Vernon L. Smith's book Rationality in Economics to that end) regarding the rationality under uncertainty stuff but I do have the sense that basic acceptability is something that hasn't been studied. At any rate, it's sexy.

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  3. Regarding candidate behaviors, I'd say follow the money. Cash-outs, max-outs, ill-advised stock ventures, and (literal) high-stakes gambling. For those with fewer assets to put on the line, you might look for anomalous criminal conduct, attempted acts of heroism, abrupt relocation, and sexual risk-taking. Maybe religious conversions. I'd be very surprised if there weren't something to this.

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  4. Or follow the drugs. Blatantly damaging/life-threatening levels of alcohol or drug ingestion make for a far bigger little death than an orgasm. Revealing perhaps an indecision/impotence regarding actual suicide.

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