Category: Suicide/ self-harm

Perfectionism as a risk factor for suicide – the most comprehensive test to date

Screenshot 2017-08-04 09.46.12.pngBy Christian Jarrett

According to the World Health Organisation, someone takes their own life every 45 seconds. To help prevent future tragedies, we need to know more about the factors that make some people especially vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and acting on those thoughts. One candidate is perfectionism: the tendency some people have to hold themselves to consistently impossible standards and/or feeling the need to meet or surpass the lofty expectations of others.

In 1995 the late psychologist Sidney Blatt highlighted the apparent link between perfectionism and suicide in an influential article for American Psychologist titled “The Destructiveness of Perfectionism” in which he profiled three highly talented, ambitious but harshly self-critical individuals all of whom took their own lives: Vincent Foster, a deputy counsel to President Bill Clinton; writer, singer and broadcaster Alasdair Clayre; and athlete and scholar Roger D Hansen.

“Because of the need to maintain a personal and public image of strength and perfection, [perfectionists] are constantly trying to prove themselves, are always on trial, feel vulnerable to any possible implication of failure or criticism, and often are unable to turn to others, even the closest of confidants, for help or to share their anguish” Blatt wrote.

However, since Blatt’s paper, research progress on the topic has been slow, hampered in part by a confusing multitude of definitions of perfectionism and a paucity of studies with the longitudinal methodology needed to establish that perfectionist tendencies increase suicidal risk. But now, writing in Journal of Personality, a team led by Martin Smith at the University of Western Ontario say there is enough data to conduct a “meta-analysis”, which is what they’ve done, producing “the most comprehensive test of the perfectionism-suicidality link to date”.

Continue reading “Perfectionism as a risk factor for suicide – the most comprehensive test to date”

After half a century of research, psychology can’t predict suicidal behaviours better than by coin flip

African American Depressive Sad Broken Heart ConceptBy guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide” the French author and philosopher Albert Camus stated. But it is not only philosophers who are moved by this issue. Psychologists are seeking ways of preventing this tragic death, and health care organisations are sounding the alarm. Around a million people die at their own hand every year, which makes suicide the tenth most common cause of death. Additionally, for every completed suicide, there are 10 to 40 survived attempts, which means that in the USA alone 650,000 people each year are taken to emergency rooms following an attempt on their own life. Yet what is most disturbing is that the number of suicides is continually rising. The WHO reports that since the 1960s this number has grown over 60 per cent.

Is psychology capable of identifying the risk factors that can push people to take their own lives? Joseph Franklin at Florida State University and his research team at the Technology and Psychopathy (TAP) Lab have provided an answer, but it is a disappointing one. Our capacity to predict whether someone will make a suicide attempt is no better than chance. What is worse, we have not made any progress in this area in the last half-century. These striking conclusions come as the result of a meta-analysis of 365 studies into suicide risk conducted over the last 50 years and published recently in Psychological Bulletin (pdf).

Continue reading “After half a century of research, psychology can’t predict suicidal behaviours better than by coin flip”

Family support crucial for helping people to stop self-harming

9482286976_62bdfd1872_kBy Christian Jarrett

As newly obtained figures from the NHS show a dramatic increase in the number of young people being hospitalised following self-harm, a timely study in Archives of Suicide Research has reviewed what we know so far about how people who self-harm manage to stop. Tess Mummé and her colleagues identified 9 relevant studies to review – three quantitative, four qualitative, and two using a combination of these approaches – together involving hundreds of people aged 12 to 60, the majority female. Among the key insights, the researchers found family support is crucial for stopping self-harming, perhaps more than support from friends or professionals. But ultimately the review concludes that we need more research. Continue reading “Family support crucial for helping people to stop self-harming”

Are certain groups of people more likely to leave suicide notes?

It is a sad fact that we can never ask of the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who take their own lives each year – why did you do it? Instead, psychologists talk to people who have survived suicide attempts, and they also look into the minds’ of suicide victims through the notes that they leave. But in fact only a minority of suicide victims leave notes, and the validity of studying these notes depends in part of the assumption that victims who leave notes are the same as those who don’t. A new analysis, published in Archives of Suicide Research, of all the suicides that occurred in Queensland Australia during 2004, questions this very assumption.

Belinda Carpenter and her colleagues were given access to the coronial files of the 533 suicides that took place that year, and the associated police reports, autopsy reports, and coroner’s findings gave them unusual insight into the background to the victims. This detail also allowed the researchers to look beyond traditional, written suicide notes (left by 39 per cent of the victims) and to also identify instances where victims had made verbal or electronic warnings of their intent (a further 22 per cent had done this).

Matching trends around the world, the majority of the suicide victims in this study were male (83.1 per cent) and the average age at death was 43.8 years. The most common method of suicide was by hanging; just over half of the victims had known mental health issues; and a little over 5 per cent were from Indigenous Aboriginal communities.

Turning to the main question, the researchers found, contrary to the limited prior research on this topic, that women were less likely to have left a note (or made a verbal warning) than men, as were victims from indigenous communities and victims who killed themselves through gassing (by contrast, those who took their lives under a train or in a car were less likely to have left a note).

Among those victims who did leave a note or warning of some kind, women were more likely to leave a written note, as were victims from more affluent areas, while those with known mental health problems were more likely to have made verbal warnings.

The researchers advised that their results be interpreted with caution since some of the subcategories they looked at ended up consisting of very few cases. That said, they concluded that the findings suggest that “there are some significant differences” between suicide victims who leave notes and those who don’t, and that this needs to be taken into account by future research. “This is particularly important for research that uses suicide notes to gain insight into the motivation for suicide more generally,” they said.


Carpenter, B., Bond, C., Tait, G., Wilson, M., & White, K. (2016). Who Leaves Suicide Notes? An Exploration of Victim Characteristics and Suicide Method of Completed Suicides in Queensland Archives of Suicide Research, 20 (2), 176-190 DOI: 10.1080/13811118.2015.1004496

further reading
A study of suicide notes left by children and young teens
What’s different about those who attempt suicide rather than just thinking about it?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Is monotony worse than melancholy? Participants gave themselves electric shocks when bored, not when sad

To psychologists, there’s nothing boring about boredom. Among other things, they’re beginning to realise just what an especially aversive state it is to be in. A new study in Psychiatry Research brings this home – the researchers found that student participants were more inclined to give themselves unpleasant electric shocks when they were provoked into feeling bored (a negative, low arousal state) than when they were provoked into feeling sad (a negative, but high arousal state, meaning that it is unpleasant but stimulating). This was especially the case for students with a history of self-harm, suggesting the research may have implications for understanding why people resort to deliberately hurting themselves in real life.

Chantal Nederkoorn at Maastricht University and her colleagues allocated the 69 participants, 19 per cent of whom were men, to one of three hour-long conditions: one involved watching a film about a girl who needed a bone marrow transplant and was designed to provoke sadness; another involved watching a documentary about the memory researcher Eric Kandel and was designed as a neutral/control condition; and the final condition involved watching an 83 second segment from that Kandel documentary (in which he is playing tennis with a friend) on repeat for one hour, which was designed to provoke boredom. Emotion questionnaires confirmed that the conditions had the desired effects. Prior to viewing the videos, participants in all conditions were wired to an electric shock machine and were told that, if they wanted, they could administer shocks to themselves of varying intensities whenever they liked.

The researchers tallied up the number of times the participants had chosen to shock themselves after 15 minutes and after one hour, and the intensity of the strongest shock they’d chosen (the machine’s highest setting was 20 milliamps – painful but not dangerous). There was no difference between the neutral and sad condition in the number or intensity of shocks that participants gave themselves. However, after one hour, participants in the boredom condition had given themselves more shocks than those in the neutral condition, and on average, the strongest shock they’d given themselves was higher in the boredom condition.

This contrast between conditions was especially apparent for the participants who had a history of self harm in real life. For example, after one hour,  participants with a history of self harm and who were in the boredom condition had given themselves an average of just over 20 shocks (the strongest at just under 10 milliamps on average), whereas those in the neutral condition had given themselves an average of less than 2 shocks (with the strongest at less than 4 milliamps on average). The effect of boredom was also more immediate among the participants with a history of self-harm – just 15 minutes in, they had already shocked themselves more times in the boredom condition than in the neutral condition.

The researchers were cautious about over-interpreting their findings – for example, they pointed out that unlike in real life, the participants weren’t given any other way, besides the electric shocks, to distract themselves from the sadness or boredom. And they admitted the study involved a small, non-clinical sample.

Nonetheless, the finding that boredom was especially effective at provoking people into self-administering painful electric shocks does tally with some past research into real-life self-harming – for example, people have previously described hurting themselves for stimulation and to “feel something”, and boredom has previously been linked with suicidal thoughts. “Solitary confinement in jail has [also] been associated with increased risk of self-harm in jail,” the researchers said. “As the same mechanism can already be provoked in non-clinical undergraduate students within one hour, it seems that the negative effects of boredom and monotony should not be taken lightly.”


Nederkoorn, C., Vancleef, L., Wilkenhöner, A., Claes, L., & Havermans, R. (2016). Self-inflicted pain out of boredom Psychiatry Research, 237, 127-132 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychres.2016.01.063

further reading
The exciting side of boredom
Boredom comes from not knowing ourselves
Is it the darkness within? Some people would rather shock themselves with electricity than spend time with their own thoughts
A shocking result – people are more willing to hurt themselves than others for profit

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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What does a person’s writing style say about their risk of suicide?

Suicidal thoughts are relatively common whereas acts of suicide are, thankfully, far more rare. But this creates a dilemma – how to judge the risk of thoughts turning into action? A new study claims that an objective way is to use a computer programme to analyse a person’s writing style. People who are having suicidal thoughts and who use more pronouns relating to the self (I, me, myself) than pronouns relating to others, are likely to take more time to recover, meaning they will be at risk for longer.

Mira Brancu and her colleagues investigated 114 US students who’d referred themselves to an outpatient counselling centre at their university, and all of whom said they were having suicidal thoughts. When the students started therapy they completed a measure of suicidal risk which involved them writing about what they found most painful, pressing, agitating, and if and why they felt hopeless and self-hating. They also wrote about their reasons for living and dying and about “one thing that would help me no longer feel suicidal”.

A computer programme analysed the students’ answers to these questions, counting the relative number of mentions of first-person pronouns compared with mentions of other people, including friends and family and people’s names. Based on this, the students were categorised as either self-focused or other-focused. The important finding was that this categorisation was related to how the students progressed through therapy, based on their session-by-session self-ratings of their frequency of suicidal thoughts and their assessment of their own suicide risk. Students who were more self-focused at the study start took longer to recover – their suicidal thoughts resolved, on average, in 17 to 18 sessions, compared with 6 to 7 sessions for the students who were categorised as other-focused.

This finding does build on past research linking first-person pronoun use with personal distress, but as a diagnostic tool for suicidal risk it definitely needs replicating in other contexts – these were students who’d self-referred for treatment and all of them recovered, so it’s not clear whether the same results would apply with other, potentially more at-risk groups (but note, a prior study of suicidal poets [pdf] found that those who used more first-person pronouns were more likely to die by suicide).

Despite its limitations, this is an intriguing result that shows the possibility of a relatively quick, efficient and objective way to estimate the likely persistence of suicidal thoughts. The measure would be “bias-free” which is important because it’s known that clinicians’ own subjective judgments can be off-target. Indeed, Brancu and her colleagues note that an informal survey of clinicians at conferences found that they thought more self-focused versus other-focused writings would be a positive sign, indicating that patients were better able to articulate their feelings.


Brancu, M., Jobes, D., Wagner, B., Greene, J., & Fratto, T. (2015). Are There Linguistic Markers of Suicidal Writing That Can Predict the Course of Treatment? A Repeated Measures Longitudinal Analysis Archives of Suicide Research DOI: 10.1080/13811118.2015.1040935

further reading
Greater use of “I” and “me” as a mark of interpersonal distress
What’s different about those who attempt suicide rather than just thinking about it?
A study of suicide notes left by children and young teens

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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What kind of mass murderer is likely to die in the act, and why should we care?

There’s a striking fact about mass murderers – an extremely high percentage (around 30 per cent) of them die in the act, either by suicide or because of deadly police force. Of course, only a saint would likely be moved to feel sympathy by this statistic, but a new paper digs into the reasons behind it, in the hope that doing so could help prevent future killings.

The formal definition for a mass murderer, as opposed to a serial killer, is someone who kills four or more people in the same act, “with no distinctive time period between the murders”. This includes religiously inspired suicidal bombers, family killers (where one family member murders his or her partner and their children), and rampaging school shooters.

Researcher Adam Lankford at the University of Alabama (author of The Myth of Martyrdom) hired a crack team of investigative journalists to identify all the mass murders committed in the US between 2006 and 2014. The team mined media reports, FBI records and local police reports to find details of 242 cases of mass murder. Averaging 4.9 victims, and with over 90 per cent of the perpetrators being male, the crimes were coded according to several basic features such as killing type and age of offender, allowing Lankford to establish whether there was anything distinctive about the 31 per cent of mass murderers who died in the act (80 per cent of whom died by suicide) compared with those who survived.

Gender wasn’t a relevant factor, but older mass murderers were more likely to die, as were killers who operated alone (48 per cent of those who lived had a co-offender compared with just 5 per cent of those who died). Mass murderers who died also tended to kill more victims (an average of 5.5. versus 4.6 victims among the surviving killers). Regarding types of mass murder, family killers were the mostly likely to end up dead (61.7 per cent), followed by public killers (i.e. rampage shooters and such like; 28.7 per cent), perpetrators of miscellaneous mass murders (e.g. gangland killings or neighbour disputes; 5.3 per cent) and robbery-related mass killings (4.3 per cent).

Why should we care about these statistics? Lankford’s thesis is that they support the notion that “suicidal motives play a major role in the behaviour of many mass murderers”. He draws on the work of the nineteenth century French psychologist Émile Durkheim to suggest that many of the mass murderers effectively took their own and other people’s lives either as an act of egoistic suicide ,”whereby people who lack social connections and the moderating influences of others are more likely to spiral into suicidal despair”; or anomic suicide, in which “[the killer’s] anger and actions may lack clear purpose or direction”; or altruistic suicide, “which is carried out by people who feel they are serving some greater good”.

Lankford points to the parallel between suicide statistics for the US population as a whole (where suicide rates correlate with greater age) and the fact that older offenders were more likely to die – “it is interesting that despite the aberrational natures of their crimes, mass murderers seem to fit with these basic demographic trends,” he says. He also notes the apparently powerful protective influence of a co-offender. “Even among this extremely violent minority of homicide offenders,” he writes, “the presence and social influence of fellow offenders may be critical to preventing a self-orchestrated death.”

Lankford acknowledges that the exceptionally high rate of suicidal deaths among family killers may seem to contradict Durkheim’s writings on suicide (Durkheim said that the married person’s family bonds would keep them stable). But Lankford argues that “in the case of many family killers, that connection has clearly been broken” – frequently because the murderer suspects infidelity or feels abandoned in some way by the family.

One of Lankford’s most important messages is that a “side-benefit” of improved suicide prevention strategies is likely to be a reduction in the occurrences of mass murder. And he warns that just as high-profile (non-homicidal) suicide cases often prompt a temporary increase in suicide rates, “it appears that some recent mass murderers have been influenced and inspired by their knowledge of other highly publicised killers.” One preventive strategy in this context, he says, is for the media to avoid glamorising mass murderers and to deter potential copycats by covering “… the more humiliating aspects of the killers’ own deaths, such as the fact that their bowels often release and leave their body soaked in urine or feces”.


Lankford, A. (2015). Mass murderers in the United States: predictors of offender deaths The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/14789949.2015.1054858

further reading
The Psychology of Violent Extremism – Digested
How killing begets more killing (of bugs)
The psychology of female serial killers

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Our free fortnightly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!

Is self-disgust the emotional trigger that leads to self-harm?

To help people who perform non-lethal self-harm, such as cutting and burning themselves, we need a better understanding of the thoughts and feelings that contribute to them resorting to this behaviour. Risk factors are already known, including depression and a history of sexual abuse. However, Noelle Smith and her colleagues wondered if these factors increase the risk of self-harm because they lead people to experience self-disgust. Viewed this way, the researchers believe “self-disgust may serve as an emotional trigger” for self-harm.

Over five hundred undergrads, men and women, answered questions about whether they’d ever intentionally harmed themselves (including cutting, burning and scratching); when they’d last performed such an act; their depression symptoms; any history of physical or sexual abuse; their anxiety; and crucially, their feelings of self-disgust, as measured by 18 items, such as “I find myself repulsive”.

Consistent with the researchers’ predictions, the more self-disgust a student reported, the greater the likelihood that they had previously performed self-harm (statistically speaking, a one standard deviation increase in self-disgust was associated with a two-fold increase in the odds of reporting self-harm).

Levels of self-disgust were the highest in those students who said they’d performed self-harm in the last year. These were also the same students who tended to report depression symptoms and a history of physical or sexual abuse. It’s notable though, that depression was no longer associated with self-harm once self-disgust was taken into account, suggesting that self-disgust is the key mediating factor.

These findings jibe with past research on the more cognitive aspects of self-disgust – for example, there’s evidence that self-harm is associated with being self-critical and having an excessive focus on one’s own mistakes. Other studies have highlighted reductions in self-disgust after acts of self-harm, but also increases. Smith and her colleagues suggested the link could be bi-directional: self-harm may assuage feelings of disgust with self, but performing a self-harming act may then trigger feelings of shame with one’s own actions.

The cross-sectional nature of this study means it can’t shed light on the direction of causality –  whether self-disgust contributes to self-harm behaviours, or if the reverse is true. Self-disgust was also measured as trait, rather than as an acute state of mind. The researchers acknowledged these issues, but they note theirs is the first study to look at the emotion of self-disgust as a precipitating factor for self-harm, and they call for more research. For now, they said their results suggest reducing self-disgust may help people who are at risk of self-harm.


Smith, N., Steele, A., Weitzman, M., Trueba, A., & Meuret, A. (2015). Investigating the Role of Self-Disgust in Nonsuicidal Self-Injury Archives of Suicide Research, 19 (1), 60-74 DOI: 10.1080/13811118.2013.850135

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

By treating depression, do we also treat suicidality? The answer is far from straightforward

By guest blogger James Coyne.

Edgar Allan Poe’s fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin warns against tackling questions that are too complicated to test, but too fascinating to give up. Whether psychotherapy or medication can reduce suicidality is probably such a question. Particularly if we are really interested in whether treatments can reduce attempted suicides, not whether they change patients’ answers in an interview or on a questionnaire.

There is no doubt about the clinical and public health significance of the question. After all, psychotherapy and medication are treatments of choice for suicidal patients. The logic is that many, even if not all, suicidal persons are depressed; we know about effective treatments for depression; and so we can generalise from knowledge about what works for depression to what works for suicidality. However, we must hope for more definitive evidence, and a new study attempts to provide it.

The authors include suicide expert Ad Kerkhof, and Pim Cuijpers, who has done some of the most influential meta-analyses and systematic reviews on the treatment of depression. Together with doctoral student Erica Weitz and depression expert Steven Hollon, they analyzed data from the US National Institute of Mental Health Treatment for Depression Collaborative Research Project (TDCRP). Conducted in the 1980s, it was then the largest ever comparison of psychotherapy and medication for treatment of depression. Two hundred and fifty patients with major depression were randomized to cognitive therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, antidepressant medication, or a pill-placebo plus clinical management as a control group.

The original study did not specifically target suicidality. It actually excluded patients with moderate to severe suicidality. However, the two primary depression outcome measures for the study, the self-report Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and the interview-administered Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HRSD), each contained a single item inquiring about suicidal thoughts and behaviour:

Suicidal ideation/suicidality is rated on the HRSD on a 5-point scale:
1—feels life is not worth living,
2—wishes he were dead or any thoughts of possible death to self,
3—suicide ideas or gesture.
4—attempts at suicide (any serious attempt rates a 4).

The suicidality question on the BDI is measured on a 4-point scale:
0—I do not have any thoughts of killing myself,
1—I have thoughts of killing myself, but I would not carry them out,
2—I would like to kill myself,
3—I would like to kill myself if I had the chance.

The new analysis required that patients have at least some suicidal ideation on either measure. Of the 250 patients, 146 met this criterion. At the start of treatment, patients scored a mean of 1.15 on the HRSD suicide item and .74 on the BDI’s item. The sample included one person who had made a suicide attempt. This case proved to be an outlier and was removed from the analysis. Thus, this study captures mostly mild to moderate suicidal thoughts.

Based on measures taken pre- and post-treatment, the authors found that all treatments, including the pill placebo with clinical management, significantly reduced scores on both the interview and self-report measures of suicidality, with all having a medium effect size. According to the interview measure, interpersonal psychotherapy and antidepressant medication reduced suicidality more than the pill placebo with clinical management. No differences were found between treatments using the self-report measure.

The authors recognised that because the comparison-control group (pill placebo plus clinical management) significantly reduced suicidality, no conclusions could be drawn about specific components of the treatments being essential. It is important to note that pill placebo plus clinical management was not an inert control condition. Neither patients nor therapist knew that any antidepressant was not given, and there were considerable positive expectations, support and encouragement. I am sure that outcomes would have been better in this group than for a waiting list control condition, but there was none included the study.

Recall that the items measuring suicidal ideation were part of depression scales. Did these specific items decrease simply as a result of overall improvements in depression? The authors state they ruled that out with complex multivariate analyses, but I was left unconvinced.

Suicidal ideation is a surrogate outcome. That is, it serves as a proxy for the more interesting, but less frequent outcomes of suicide gestures and attempts and completed suicides. However, the problem with a proxy outcome is the treatment can have a positive effect that is insufficient to change the clinical variables of interest. There was a time when pharmaceutical companies relied on surrogate outcomes like reduction in blood pressure when rates of heart attack were the actual variable of interest. In that context, many treatments affected surrogate outcomes without changing the real variables of interest. The same could be happening here.

Overall, the study demonstrates a dilemma. Mild suicidal ideation is common among depressed patients seeking treatment, but overall is a poor predictor of suicide attempts, which are comparatively infrequent. While many of the patients who ultimately attempt suicide present with serious suicidal ideation, most of them start off with signs of only mild to moderate suicidality. The seeming paradox is due to having to predict later infrequent events from imperfect and nonspecific risk indicators.

We can certainly study treatment of patients at high risk because of a recent suicide attempt, but what we learn then is not readily generalisable to the more common clinical situation of patients expressing only mild to moderate suicidality when they enter treatment. On the other hand, if we study the treatment of this moderate suicidality seen in the clinic, we can’t measure the impact on actual attempts or death by suicide, because to do so would involve a prohibitively large sample.

We are left with the uncomfortable situation of attempting to address a clinical problem in studies with poor measures and inadequate sample size. Or simply having to settle for answering the question “Do depression treatments reduce suicidality?” with “Probably: they reduce depression.”


Weitz E, Hollon SD, Kerkhof A, & Cuijpers P (2014). Do depression treatments reduce suicidal ideation? The effects of CBT, IPT, pharmacotherapy, and placebo on suicidality. Journal of affective disorders, 167C, 98-103 PMID: 24953481

Post written by James Coyne (@Coyneoftherealm) for the BPS Research Digest. James Coyne, PhD is Professor of Health Psychology, University Medical Center, Groningen and the 2015 Carnegie Centenary Professor at University of Stirling.

Why do people think suicide is morally wrong?

Public surveys show many people view suicide as morally wrong. When you ask them why, they usually refer to the harm caused to the deceased’s family and friends, and to the victim themselves. However, a fascinating new study uncovers evidence suggesting that a more important reason people feel suicide is morally wrong is because they see it as tainting the victim’s soul. This is the case even for liberal non-religious people. The finding is another example of how our implicit moral judgments are often at odds with our conscious, explicitly stated moral reasoning.

Joshua Rottman and his colleagues presented 174 US participants (114 women; average age 21) online with eight fabricated obituaries that had the appearance of a real obituary published in a paper. The participants were mostly non-religious liberals. Half of them read obituaries about people killed by murder; the other half read obituaries for people killed by suicide. The wording for the obituaries began with a simple statement (e.g. “Louise Parker, who was 68 years old, died on January 11, 2008 due to [suicide/homicide]”). Apart from that single word difference at the end of the opening statement, the remainder of each obituary – a respectful description of the deceased – was the same for participants in the two conditions.

After reading each obituary, the participants were asked to rate the death according to how morally wrong it was; how angry it made them feel; how disgusted it made them feel; how much harm had been done; and whether the victim’s soul had been tainted. The order of the questions was randomised. The participants were also asked to state explicitly why each suicide/homicide is morally wrong.

Overall, homicides were judged more morally wrong than suicides, as you’d expect. However, on average the suicides were also rated as morally wrong, consistent with previous public surveys. The most revelatory finding is that the participants’ ratings for the moral wrongness of suicides was not correlated with their ratings of the harm caused. Rather, their judgment of moral wrongness was correlated with their ratings of how much the victim’s soul was tainted. Consistent with this, the participants’ feelings of disgust predicted their ratings for the moral wrongness of suicide, but their feelings of anger did not.

In contrast, to the findings for suicide, ratings for the moral wrongness of homicide were associated with judgments about harm, but not ratings about the tainting of victims’ souls. “These results support our principal hypothesis,” the researchers said, “suicide, but not homicide, is considered immoral when there are elevated concerns about spiritual taint (impurity), while the same is not true for concerns about harm.” Intriguingly, this result was at odds with the participants’ explicitly stated reasons for finding suicide morally wrong, which tended to focus on harm caused.

What about the participants’ religious and political beliefs? As you might expect, those who were more conservative and religious tended to judge suicide as more morally wrong. But perhaps the most astonishing result from this research is that the link between seeing the victim’s soul as tainted and seeing a suicide as morally wrong was just as strong for the non-religious and liberal as for the religious and conservative.

“These results suggest that even if people explicitly deny the existence of religious phenomena, natural tendencies to at least implicitly believe in souls can underlie intuitive moral judgments”, the researchers said. The research has some limitations, as the researchers acknowledged – for example, all the participants were from the US, and there’s a need to examine other forms of suicide, such as suicide bombers. Also, the causal role of beliefs about purity has not yet been proven.

However, the authors are to be credited for publishing several replications of their main finding (not detailed here). “A greater understanding of the processes that are relevant to the condemnation of suicide victims may prove useful for the millions worldwide who are affected by this widespread tragedy”, the researchers concluded.


Rottman J, Kelemen D, and Young L (2014). Tainting the soul: Purity concerns predict moral judgments of suicide. Cognition, 130 (2), 217-26 PMID: 24333538

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.