Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Freakonomics on Suicide?

It was on a surprising topic for economics, but Freakonomics often goes outside the usual scope.  They looked at suicide.  The last segment was the best, but all of it was at least worth skimming through (is there an audio version of skimming?). I recommend listening to the whole thing, even if you haven’t ever had suicidal thoughts.

But what I want to talk about today were three specific findings.  Two are related to who is likely to commit suicide.  What they found is that depressed people do a kind of cost/benefit analysis.  They think of the burden required to live (since they are depressed, living is perceived as a lot of work).  They also think about their balance of happiness and sadness.  If the burden is worse than the net happiness, then they are likely to commit suicide. Of course, their perception is totally warped, but that is the basic mental process.

The second finding is that the balance is perceived relative to their community.  So ironically, the better off the society is, the more likely the depressed person is to commit suicide.  If there were an excuse like everyone in the neighborhood is equally bad off, then they don’t feel so bad.  But if everyone else is doing well, the balance seems worse.  This corresponds well with the happiness research, which shows that a person’s (not just depressed people) happiness is directly related to how well they are doing compared to others in the community.

Another topic that they talked about is that there are certain things that trigger suicide among people who are already likely.  So these things don’t cause suicide, but if someone is already predisposed, this increases the likelihood that they will do it.  One of these is media coverage.  In Sweden they tried an experiment.  There was a rash of suicides from people jumping in front of trains.  The government convinced the media to change the way they covered the suicides to tone it down.  When the coverage was muted, there were fewer copycats.

Another trigger was pop culture.  When a famous person commits suicide, there is a jump in people of similar demographics (age, gender, race) who commit suicide.  Again, the death of the famous person doesn’t cause the suicide, but it triggers it.  The Marilyn Monroe suicide was used as an illustration.  But Curt Kobain’s death didn’t trigger copycats.  They think it is because his wife, Courtney Love, immediately got on the media and told people how wrong this was and how suicide is not the solution.  She countered the trigger.  

Interesting findings I think.  Even though my expertise is not related to suicide, irrational thinking is similar across the board.  This says a lot that can be used in human factors too.