May 20, 2012

Higher support for suicide in falling-crime times

The General Social Survey asks four questions about whether a person has the right to kill themselves in different scenarios: having an incurable disease, having gone bankrupt, having dishonored their family, and being tired of living and ready to die.

They are all positively correlated with each other, so I reduced them to just one underlying factor, suicide support, using factor analysis to compare years. This makes the value less interpretable -- it's like a z-score, comparing where the year stands compared to the rest of the years, instead of an absolute statement like a certain percentage support some position. At any rate, higher scores mean higher support. Here are the results:

From 1977 to 1991, support hovers near -1, aside from a couple fluke years. All those years are in negative territory. From 1993 to 2010, all are in the positive territory, and bounce around mostly between 0 and 1.

I haven't looked into popular views on suicide during the mid-century or the Jazz Age. Even with this narrower time focus, the fact that the upward shift happened in either 1992 or '93 suggests a link with the trend in the crime rate. The whole society got a lot less violent, and that includes suicide rates as well as homicide rates. People who hear less frequently about suicides might be more clueless about them, and so naively grant them more dignity than they deserve.

Still, mere cluelessness doesn't produce a bias in the more accepting direction -- people who are clueless about suicides could hypothetically be more intolerant of the unfamiliar. What makes their lack of familiarity go toward more, not less, acceptance?

Here we see the role of the cocooning trend of falling-crime times, as safer environments make people feel less of a need to connect with, rely on, and look out for each other. "You want to off yourself? Well, hey, it's your life, and I have no stake in it, so I don't care what you do with it." That's not how you respond to someone you are connected to when they bring up the idea of killing themselves.

This is a general principle: the more overlapping your lives are, the more intensely you care about what they do with theirs, because it is partly yours. They don't have 100% veto power over their life because it's embedded in the lives of many others. And reciprocally, you yourself don't have 100% veto power over your own life. So it's not like slavery, where the person has no say over what happens to them, but neither is it the pure autonomy of an atomized, hive-like society. It's a community-minded world where all concerned get to weigh in, perhaps according to how affected they will be by the decision -- like, close friends have more say than co-workers when someone they all know is thinking of suicide.

Maybe I've just been skimming or reading the wrong things all my literate life, but I can't remember reading anything useful on this topic that was philosophical or abstract. Until someone close to you (or who was once close to you) kills themselves, you won't understand that the suicide has robbed something from other people, involving life itself. He has not taken their lives, as though it were murder, but destroyed all their "shares" in his own life.

And often enough, in leaving he delivers one of the ultimate insults to those near and dear to him -- that "you guys are just too dumb, too callous, too cheery, or too whatever, to get my situation, and so it wouldn't be any use trying to reach out to you all for help." Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence, and for giving us no chance to defend and prove ourselves against the charge.

One consequence of that shift shown in the graph is that we're less likely these days to see the suicide as someone who needs to be forgiven by others for the harm and disorder that he chose to throw into their lives, and more likely to see him as a helpless victim buffeted about by "social forces." Anything to view our relationships with others in impersonal, emotionally avoidant ways.


  1. "the pure autonomy of an atomized, hive-like society"
    What? Wouldn't hive-live be the opposite of atomized autonomy?

    The most pro-suicide person I know of on the net is Sister Y. I'd consider her far less clueless than the average person.

    Are people robbed if someone they are connected to moves away and doesn't keep in contact? Maybe even explicitly states "Don't contact me"? Should folks have veto power over that decision?

  2. "What? Wouldn't hive-live be the opposite of atomized autonomy?"

    Well, there is the whole "mass society/lonely crowd" school of thought, according to whom the reduction of direct personal connections between people is associated to more submission of the isolated individuals to burocratic, anonymous organizations like the State and the big bussinesses.

    This could make some sense - even if we like it or not, humans have to interact with each other and to have any way of coordinating their actions. And, if this "coordination" was not made by "mutual interaction", like it occurs in interpersonal groups like family, a small workplace, neighborhood or friends groups, has to be made by impersonal rules dictated from above.

    [I hpe that you understand what I am trying to say; I recognize that both my English and the expression of my thought is a bit confuse]

  3. Perhaps it was simply a permanent increase in support for right to suicide, and the "below 0 until 1993, above 0 after" was simply a statistical illusion (if you compare the evolution of a variable from 1975 to 2010, and that variable evolves in a relatively regular way, the average value - the "point 0" - will naturally be around 1990)

  4. Don't worry, we understand you. Yes, that's what I mean about people living in isolation within a hive. A cocooning society prefers authoritarianism, while an outgoing society prefers bottom-up discussion and enforcement of morality.

    The individual variables don't increase before the early-mid 1990s, and then increase afterwards.

  5. "Are people robbed if someone they are connected to moves away and doesn't keep in contact? Maybe even explicitly states "Don't contact me"? Should folks have veto power over that decision?"

    Sure they're robbed -- you never had a best friend move away?

    Re-read what I wrote -- nothing about the others having veto over such a decision, which I said would be more like slavery. Just that they should have more than zero say, as when they lean on the person very heavily not to leave.

    Unless the leaver is autistic, that will have some influence that opposes the direction they want things to go.

  6. Whether someone has the right to do something and whether social sanction should be used to persuade are two quite distinct things.

  7. Anonymous3:40 PM

    The cause of the social isolation is pretty clear: welfare combined with loosening social standards. Public venues have been flooded with ill-tempered plebes.

  8. Ill-tempered plebes were even more out-and-about when everyone else filled into public spaces. See Taxi Driver, the music video for "Love is a Battlefield," or the documentary Streetwise, for a view of the later '70s and '80s.

    What you're pointing to is an effect, not a cause: when the majority of normal people withdraw into their cocoons, a larger fraction of public-space people will be creeps and assholes.

    The cycle breaks when normal people decide that it's not the worst thing in the world to encounter or walk near weirdos. They can defend themselves verbally or physically, plus rely on other normals out in public to get their back, in the event that a degenerate does try to start some shit.

    And that'll only begin when normals start to trust each other again.

  9. Anonymous2:45 PM

    "And that'll only begin when normals start to trust each other again."

    Based on the cycles you've proposed, when do you expect that? Sorry for the stupid question if there's a general schema post where you lay all that out.

  10. Quite a coincidence that Bryan Caplan writes on the right vs decency of severing social ties with someone. Of course, I think he's wrong that "common sense" morality is libertarian, Haidt has quite clearly shown it is not.

  11. It's a community-minded world where all concerned get to weigh in, perhaps according to how affected they will be by the decision -- like, close friends have more say than co-workers when someone they all know is thinking of suicide.

    There is truth to this. However, if the people around you are sincere in their caring about you, they should be willing to put forth effort into helping you overcome whatever problem that would motivate you to commit suicide in the first place. Otherwise, talk is cheap and such people are insincere in their value of your life. Insincerity has no place in any reasonable society.

  12. Anonymous12:36 AM

    And that'll only begin when normals start to trust each other again."

    Its not that simple. I'm not sure there are many "normals" left anymore. You talk as if the problem is only a few child molesters, yet it seems like most people have degenerated. A vast segment of the population has become both more egotistic while also becoming less socially competent. As a result, what "normal" people there are left are scared to leave their houses

    For instance, this past weekend I had to drive down the eastern seaboard to attend a wedding. I was stunned by the sheer number of vanity license plates I saw - somewhere in the order of 40-50. Not only are these people attention whores, but they fail to realize how offputting such license plates can be. (for instance, its disconcerting that multiple middle-aged women have the license plate "foxy").

    Anyone who attended college after the year 2000 can also attest to how fucked up the average young person is, especially young men. Fratboys now molest each other as part of their hazing ritual, while at the same time getting laid less than ever before. When the typical college boy tries to hit on a girl, he's either stilted and awkward, or aggressively vulgar. It is a strange time we live in, when both dorks and fratboys have become equally sheltered and inappropriate...


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