Suicide and multiple equilibria

I don’t aim to be the cynical economist that Tyler writes “might suggest social stigma for suicide, rather than forgiveness” but it is frightening how easy it seems to be to jump to the sad equilibrium. The story of suicide among young boys in Micronesia (I recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point for a discussion but will cite some online material) illustrates how actions and social attitudes reinforce one another. As the action becomes more common, perhaps reaching a “tipping point”, condemnation declines, and the action increases even further. Here, from one of the researchers who first documented the story, is a chilling description of suicide in Micronesia:

As suicide has gained familiarity among youth, the act itself has become increasingly more acceptable or even expected. Suicides appear to acquire a sort of contagious power. One suicide might serve as the model for successive suicides among friends of the first victim. There has been an apparent increase in suicides among very young children, aged 10-14. Evidently the idea of suicide has become increasingly commonplace and compelling, and young children are now acquiring this idea at earlier ages.

Another of the earlier researchers writes:

Love songs mention suicide, youths discuss the subject openly among themselves and at times make suicide pacts with one another, and youngsters express admiration of those who have taken their own lives and are mourned so terribly by their families and friends. What is even more shocking, however, is that a number of adults in our communities seem to share the belief that these young people have died altruistic and even heroic deaths. If the majority of Micronesians really believe that suicide is an honorable option, then this paper is thoroughly useless and all of us had better resign ourselves to continuing high rates of suicide in the future. Young people, after all, are very quick in sensing the basic values of their elders. If they get the impression that we ourselves honor suicide, then they will be only too happy to oblige by hanging themselves.

Note that one could tell similar stories in the United States about divorce, having children out of wedlock, welfare dependence etc. (also teenage suicide at a local level).

Here is a graph of suicide rates in Micronesia indicating a massive increase in a few short years in the early 1970s. The tipping theory generates credence when we note that virtually all the suicides take a similar, ritualistic form involving hanging.


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