When the thought of yourself nags you: How failure to attain cultural standards brings suicide on the fringe of consciousness

Cultural standards and suicide-related thought accessibility

Everyone fails once in a while in comparison to some standard, and failure fortunately does not immediately prompt suicidal ideation and planning of suicide attempts. Recall that Dr. Sahni’s failure to get pregnant was the fourth in a row. Suicidal thinking is the result of an elaborate process, and occurs near the end of the suicidal spiral (Baumeister, 1990). However, without leading to suicidal ideation, failure to attain standards has been shown to increase the  cognitive accessibility of concepts related to suicide (Chatard & Selimbegović, 2011). The notion of “accessibility” was proposed by Bruner (1957), and refers to the ease with which an idea comes to mind. According to Bruner, motivational states can increase the accessibility of relevant concepts. Recent social-psychological theorizing closely echoes these decade-old ideas. For example, in Kruglanski et al.’s (2002) goals systems theory, when a goal is activated, it automatically makes accessible means to that goal. In a similar vein, in the Relevance of Activated Representations (ROAR) model (Eitam & Higgins, 2010), the activation level of a given concept is determined by its motivational relevance.

To sum up the theoretical bases, if failure increases motivation to escape self-awareness (Duval & Wicklund, 1972), if suicide is a means to achieve that goal (Baumeister, 1990), and if motivation impacts construct accessibility (Eitam & Higgins, 2010; Kruglanski et al., 2002), then it follows that failure to attain a standard should increase suicide-related though accessibility. This does not mean that individuals consciously contemplate suicide and plan a suicide attempt after failure. However, it entails that concepts related to suicide should come to the fringe of consciousness immediately after a failure.

Our culture is packed with diverse standards of values that we try to achieve in order to feel good about ourselves. Advertisements on television, in magazines, or on billboards most often feature young, beautiful, slim, smiling (happy), rich, successful individuals. They convey the message that to be a valuable member of the society, this is how you have to be. Unfortunately, due to specific characteristics of some standards, societies, or individuals, these standards are often hardly attainable, and sometimes not at all.

Research on terror management theory (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986) has documented, that failures to match cultural standards can make death-related thought particularly accessible. In this theoretical perspective, self-esteem allows individuals to attenuate death-related anxiety. When this mechanism is weakened by failure to live up to cultural standards, death anxiety increases death-thought accessibility (Hayes, Schimel, Faucher, & Williams, 2008 ; Ogilvie, Cohen, & Solomon, 2008). In this view, however, increases in death-thought accessibility are motivated by the fear of death, not the desire to escape the self. Thus, TMT does not speak to the relation between failure and suicide-thought accessibility. Recent research complements current understandings of the effects of failure on cognitive functioning by disentangling the impact of failure on death- and suicide-related thoughts.

In Chatard and Selimbegović’s (2011) first experiment, participants completed measures of self-consciousness (chronic level of self-awareness, Scheier & Carver, 1985) and escapist motivations (tendency to cope with adversity by mental or behavioral avoidance, Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989). If the reasoning based on escape theory presented above stands, failure should make suicide particularly accessible for those high in self-consciousness and escapist motivations. Participants were then randomly assigned to three experimental conditions. They had to describe either how they would feel and what they would do if they were unemployed and poor (the failure condition), or if they lived in times of war (this condition was negative and related to death, but not to personal failure). Finally, in a control condition, this task was omitted.

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