The Economics of Suicide
Why trying to kill yourself may be a smart business decision.
When Kirk Jones jumped over the guardrail at Niagara Falls last week and fell 180 feet alongside 150,000 gallons per second of rushing water, traditional explanations for his leap were plentiful. Jones' parents said he had lost his job and was depressed. A suicide expert pointed out the appeal of dramatic farewells. And everyone called the jump suicidal: Jones is the first person to survive a Niagara fall without safety gear.
But when it later came out that Jones had boasted to a friend, "If I go over and I live, I am going to make some money," it was time to call in the economists.
Jones is now negotiating with tabloids to sell his story for thousands of dollars. His case, however, will complicate a debate that is roiling suicidology, one that pits economists against psychiatrists over a basic question: Is suicide a rational decision?
This controversy began in 1974 when two Princeton economists created a model to forecast suicidal decisions. Admittedly, the economists wrote, some suicidal behavior is purely irrational. But evidence suggests that economic theory explains some suicides. The economists proposed that the value of a life might be calculated the same way we value companies: Measure all the happiness a life might contain, discount it by the cost of achieving that happiness, and if the net present joie de vivre is less than zero, suicide is a viable option.
The economics of suicide were largely ignored in the ensuing decades. But last year Dave Marcotte, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, pushed the field forward when he wondered what happens to people like Jones who attempt, but do not achieve, suicide. * There are about 20 attempts for every successful suicide. (Approximately 2.9 percent of the U.S. population has attempted suicide—1,760 attempts per day.)
Previous studies had demonstrated that as personal incomes rise, the propensity for suicide falls (presumably, money doesbuy some happiness). Marcotte's insight was that individuals contemplating suicide do not just choose between life and death. Rather, they choose between three alternatives: life, death, and the gray area of unsuccessful suicide, which may be negative (expensive injury and permanent disability) or positive (a "cry for help" that elicits attention).
The resulting formula contains a somewhat paradoxical conclusion: Attempting suicide can be a rational choice, but only if there is a high likelihood it will cause the attempter's life to significantly improve.
Marcotte couldn't test the relative "life improvement" of successful suicides—since they were, of course, dead—but he could study those who had failed at suicide to determine if their lives improved after the attempt. The results are surprising. Marcotte's study found that after people attempt suicide and fail, their incomes increase by an average of 20.6 percent compared to peers who seriously contemplate suicide but never make an attempt. In fact, the more serious the attempt, the larger the boost—"hard-suicide" attempts, in which luck is the only reason the attempts fail, are associated with a 36.3 percent increase in income. (The presence of nonattempters as a control group suggests the suicide effort is the root cause of the boost.)
Why should suicide be an economic boon? Once you attempt suicide you suddenly have access to lots of resources—medical care, psychiatric attention, familial love and concern—that were previously expensive or unavailable. Doubters may ask why the depressed don't seek out resources earlier. But studies have demonstrated that psychological and familial resources become "cheaper" after a suicide attempt: It is difficult to find free medical care when you are sad, but once you try to kill yourself, it's forced on you.
Suddenly the calculus of suicide has become even more complicated. Now attempting suicide seems a rational choice, as long as the attempt isn't too successful. But this conclusion alarms suicidologists: Treating suicide as a logical act runs counter to everything they have been advocating for the past 40 years.
Charles Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times, based in New York, and the author of the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.