Sunday, April 29, 2012

Why We Believe Suicide Is Easy

In 1969, three sadistic researchers investigated the human stress response to loud sounds. Summarized in Baumeister's Meanings of Life at p. 43:
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.

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.

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.

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."

30 comments:

  1. Sister Y, you must be knowing if there are any recorded cases of other animals attempting / committing suicide ... I mean, as individuals, after facing stress or something, not something inexplicable, like lemmings. Also, not attributed to viruses...

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    1. I understand dolphins will do so.

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    2. Not clear to me that any nonhuman animal comprehends death.

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    3. Yep, dolphins--especially those in aquariums and amusement parks--will attempt suicide and sometimes, they succeed. I'm not going to link to examples because when I googled it, too many showed up.

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  2. Srikant, animal suicides? Check this, one of the most horrific and distressing stories you'll ever read. What an indictment of humanity!

    http://ingenira.hubpages.com/hub/A-Teary-Mother-Bear-Killed-Her-Baby-and-Committed-Suicide-A-Heart-Breaking-True-Story

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    1. "Looking at her dead child, she whimpered, as if saying, ”My child, I cannot save you, but you are not going to suffer any more. I’m so sorry.”"

      Isn't is obvious that this is a propaganda piece of the animal right movement?

      We have no idea of knowing whether the source is true.

      Only social animals commit suicide, and not to prevent physical pain.

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    2. Anonymous, I don't understand what you mean by 'social animals' -- are we the only ones?

      I can see why other animals won't commit suicide to prevent 'physical pain'. Away from human civilization, physical pain stops in a few days AT MOST -- either by healing or by death.

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    3. @Anonymous, No, it's not animal rights propaganda, it's just your knee jerk reaction.

      ***
      Another example of bear in a bile farm committing suicide: http://digitaljournal.com/article/319024

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    4. "Her eyes he said, were "flooded with both anguish and gentleness"."

      Again, we have melodramatic hyperbole from an unspecified anonymous source + animal rights campaigner. Also the bear died of not eating, not suicide. Animals will refuse food when ill.

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    5. "I can see why other animals won't commit suicide to prevent 'physical pain'. Away from human civilization, physical pain stops in a few days AT MOST -- either by healing or by death."

      As a person with a painful incurable nonlethal chronic disease, I wish it were true.
      Opioids are all that human civilization has to offer, but due to fast tolerance and heavy side effects, not for daily use, not for the rest of my life. ~Peregrine

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  3. Pretty sure squids will commit suicide if they don't like their environment.

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    1. Pretty sure you're making stuff up without citation. ;)

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  4. firearm suicide only fails due to a lack of people doing their homework. A shotgun to the *brainstem* has never been survived.

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    1. That may be true - citation? It's still hard to (a) get a gun (especially if you've been hospitalized or committed a crime or are a medical cannabis user - can't buy a gun in CA in those cases) and (b) learn to use it and (c) pull the trigger knowing it will rip your head apart. Unquestionably inferior to legal barbiturates. Claiming shotgun to the brainstem is good enough for folks like us begs the question of why it's not good enough for terminally ill old people.

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    2. What is the survival rate with barbiturates?

      It is perfectly good for old people, but everyone has icky feelings about death so shooting people in the head is a no no.

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    3. oh and I don't have a cite. The brainstem is involved in signal passing for functions such as the heart and lungs. Even small amounts of damage are enough to require respirator use to keep people alive. It stands to reason that shooting yourself in the brainstem in the middle of nowhere could not be survived.

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  5. "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."

    However, if people falsely believe they cannot stop their sources of distress (learned helplessness), it may prevent them from entirely realistic emotional regulation.

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  6. The other big negative to suicide by gunshot is someone has to discover the gruesome scene left after the suicide takes place. It can be traumatic for a relative who ends up being the one to see this.

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    1. Certainly agree right here. Besides, the trauma of dying by suicide is much greater for the relatives than trauma by natural death. Now theoretically, suicide could be permissible if the relatives are emotionally prepared for the fact that their loved one will die much sooner than they would naturally. However, due to affectionate kinships, further enhanced by social training, suicide is very difficult in practice - even without the in-built survival instinct mechanisms we are all born with.

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  7. That is probably the same mechanism that sometimes makes people, who acquire what they consider safe & certain means to kill themselves, lose the urge to actually do so. They regain a feeling of control and that helps them cope better.
    (No citation but I've read that several times already.)

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    1. I can thoroughly relate to that, but it doesn't make all problems go away. It shifts the subjective baseline positively, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily above suicidality level afterward.

      And for the knowledgeable person, "safe and certain" means "only 10-20% involuntary survival probability", which is not the same thing psychologically.

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    2. I can relate as well.

      I read somewhere the issue is about flinching in that last microsecond...enough to miss the brainstem.

      "cowardly" my ass.

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  8. Wrote a semi-reply, triggered by being reminded that this illusion also works in the opposite direction (noticing you can control something you thought was independent), with the same empty suckiness.

    And some thoughts on why it bothers me that this is a problem at all, and how actually it *ought* to be good news, and how I don't understand that it isn't.

    (Yeah, I'm not that convinced either. Still feeling empty inside, life's still one big hedonic hangover.)

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  9. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/brilliant-pupils-logical-suicide-1188778.html

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  10. I attempted to suicide with sleeping pills and loads of alcohol, but didn't do it properly and didn't succed. While not literally painful, if did give very unpleasant sensations.

    From what I've researched it seems to me that starvation is the least painful of the easily available methods.

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    1. You didn't do the best possible research you could have done with your time. A thorough google search would have revealed that sleeping pills + alcohol isn't a very reliable method. Helium or CO methods, properly prepared and executed, are far more reliable. Jumps from VERY high heights could also work, but they are often impractical and require a lot of courage.

      Starvation is mostly of value for old people who can't move and who are forbidden from active euthanasia access. The weak-minded pro-lifers sometimes think starvation is ok because it's passive (you refuse to introduce something into your body, and it dies naturally, as compared to introducing something actively so it dies as a consequence, like barbiturates).

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    2. "Shiguro Takada" explains the process of starvation - The Rationality of Continuing to Live

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  11. i realy am findin it hard to continue to live under these circumstances....i knw dat most of u think i need help but the one thing i realy want more than anythng is just to close this chapter jst to be gone.so i don't want to hav any thoughts implanted in my head with the intensions to prevent me bcoz its easy for all of u to stand say whateva u feel.so if u undastand what i myt b goin thru pls post me on STINGBUG@OVI.COM

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  12. Two other factors: 1) Many people, even non-parents, end up with people (e.g., family, roommates, friends in crises) economically dependent on them. This isn't really avoidable in many cases (or would be avoidable only through some degree of callousness). Even being a parent isn't really a choice for many people (at the very least, avoiding parenthood is a hell of a lot harder for some).
    2) Religious prohibitions can be a strong reason for some. If you're told that (for instance) you can go to hell for suicide, that can make suicide unthinkable or at least a lot scarier.

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  13. First post here, My dr died at high speed crash, up north 100mph into a forest, no seat belt (draw your own conclusions) the cpso cracking down on him, caring compassionate human being, understood our line of work and the toll it takes on your body, Tylenol, advil? are you fucking kidding me

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