Participants in this experiment tried to solve problems while subjected to random blasts of unpleasant, unpredictable, loud noise. Working under these conditions was quite stressful, and most participants showed harmful aftereffects during the hour after the noise stopped. These harmful effects included lowered frustration tolerance, poorer concentration and persistence, and unpleasant feelings.The subjects in the experiment falsely believed they could stop the unpleasant noise at any time, and this helped them to regulate their emotional states. Only the illusion of control was necessary to change the meaning of the painful noise from an alien imposition to an annoyance they were choosing to bear out of helpfulness to the experimenter. In this small study, none of the subjects actually pressed the button - doing so would have revealed, and probably destroyed, the illusion.
One group of subjects, however, chosen individually at random, had been told by the experimenter before the study that there was a button on the desk that would turn off the noise. The experimenter said he'd prefer that they not press the button—but if the noise got too bad, they should feel free to shut it off. These individuals were much less bothered by the noise, and they showed no harmful aftereffects. Ironically, none of them had pressed the button. In fact, the button was not even wired, so the noise would not have stopped even if they had pressed it.
Thus, these individuals had been given an illusion of control. They had been told, falsely, that they could turn off a source of stress if they felt it necessary. This false belief in their ability to control the situation greatly improved their capacity to bear up under the stress with minimal effects. The implication is that illusions of control have important benefits for one's inner states.
Analogously, this experiment might help us understand why, based on little evidence and in the face of a great deal of contradictory evidence, people persist in believing that suicide is easy as a practical matter.
The belief that suicide is easy is, I suspect, widespread among ordinary, non-suicidal people. Bryan Caplan has made the case explicitly, stating that "there are so many cheap and easy ways to stop existing" and, more specifically, that "[t]all buildings and other routes to painless suicide are all around us." A common sentiment expressed in response to encountering antinatalism is surprise that we haven't all killed ourselves; a necessary implication for this to make sense is that suicide is easy to accomplish.
People tend to overestimate the ease and lethality of jumping from heights and gunshots to the head. In fact, inflicting traumatic injury on oneself is very difficult (for reasons including strong evolutionary ones). As Thomas Joiner reports in Why People Die By Suicide, people must in a sense train themselves to commit suicide, engaging in progressively more dangerous, painful, or provocative behaviors (such as cutting oneself) before finally working up the nerve to inflict lethal injury. The vast majority of those who attempt suicide fail; of course, some suicide attempts are insincere, but it's doubtful that all or even most failed suicide attempts are carefully calculated to be nonfatal. The truly easy, reliably lethal methods for suicide are heavily regulated (e.g., barbiturates), and, as with tall buildings and gunshots, one is always in danger of being "rescued" (forcibly prevented from committing suicide) with the full legal backing of one's government. More importantly, those who wish to commit suicide are deprived of the help of others, because while suicide is nominally legal, assisting another to commit suicide is illegal. Suicide is the only act that fits this description; every other act that's legal is also legal to help someone else perform. Suicide is culturally defined as either morally wrong or as an act of insanity. Barriers of all kinds - literal as well as legal - are erected by societies in an attempt to make suicide more difficult. Such barriers are sometimes lifted for especially innocent, sympathetic would-be suicides, such as the terminally ill; in their case, suggesting they simply jump off a building is not seen as socially appropriate. The abundance of allegedly easy methods of dying are not seen as easy enough when we are motivated to care about the person choosing to end his life.
In the face of this evidence, many still maintain that suicide is easy. I propose that believing suicide to be easy is more than just a factual mistake. It is an important belief that helps people feel that they are alive by choice, just like the experimental subjects felt they had a choice to experience the noise. Belief in "free disposal," as Bryan Caplan puts it, has the function of maintaining the subjective experience of life as a fully voluntary enterprise, not an alien imposition by one's parents and other outside forces. Only those for whom the illusion has been broken (by, for instance, a serious suicide attempt) will lose this helpful, though incorrect, belief. Those whose suffering has been so extreme as to push the button, so to speak, discover at their time of greatest need that it was a placebo button all along.
Forcible hospitalization for suicidality is the ultimate realization that the button is a lie. A recent commenter describes his experience after hospitalization:
The hospitalization was so undignified especially when two oafs grabbed me by my hands and forced me into the bandwagon. Inside the place I got so angry at everyone I busted both my hands against a wall and now can barely move any of my fingers. After my "visit" I want to die more than I've ever had.
I experienced a very similar negative-awakening eight years ago after waking up in the hospital after a suicide attempt that should have ended my life. The experience of waking up in the hospital dramatically altered the meaning of my life from the illusion of being a free person to the reality of being a prisoner. I understand the importance of believing one to be a free person who voluntarily chooses to be alive, because I have lost that belief, and pain and emptiness characterize its absence.
I do not wish to inflict pain or emptiness on others. However, in addition to providing a benefit to the individual, the belief that suicide is easy is sometimes used as a justification for reproduction. What could be wrong with bringing a new creature into the world when the creature can freely dispose of its life? It's like handing someone a lollipop - he can just throw it away if he doesn't want it.
The belief that suicide is easy, while factually incorrect, serves a valuable purpose by framing life as voluntary, and may help those who never attempt suicide to live more subjectively meaningful lives. However, this factually incorrect belief is employed to ignore the suffering of those who genuinely want to die and are unable to do so. In addition, it is used to justify the unconsented creation of life on factually incorrect grounds. If the creation of life is to be justified, it will not be based on its "free disposal."