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

Participants then completed a word completion task, assessing suicide- and death-related thoughts accessibility (Gilbert & Hixon, 1991). It consists of filling in the blanks in word fragments (e.g., B _ _ K) to form words (e.g., BOOK). Sixteen out of 24 fragments could be completed only as unrelated to suicide or death, but four could be completed as either suicide-related or unrelated (e.g., S U _ _ I _ E could be completed as SUICIDE or as SUBLIME; other suicide-related words were hang, rope, and vein, referring to the most common means of suicide in Europe, Värnik et al., 2009). Four other fragments could be completed as either death-related or not (mortal, coffin, grave, and decease). If suicide is particularly accessible, critical word fragments would be more likely to be completed as suicide-related than as neutral. Furthermore, if this is not due to an increase in the accessibility of death-related content, death-related completions should not display a parallel pattern. The proportion of suicide-related completions served as an indicator of suicide thought accessibility (and the proportion of death-related completions as an indicator of death thought accessibility).

As expected, participants in the failure condition showed greater suicide-thought accessibility than participants in the other two conditions. This result corroborates the idea of a direct link between failure and increased suicide-thought accessibility. In addition, self-consciousness and escapist motivations moderated the effect of failure, such that only those who had high scores on both of these personality characteristics reacted to failure with increased suicide thought accessibility as compared to the other two conditions. Death-related thought accessibility did not reflect a similar pattern, indicating that the increase in suicide-thought accessibility is not due to a more general increase in death-related content.

Another study (Chatard & Selimbegović, 2011, Study 2) yielded replication of the link between failure and increased suicide-thought accessibility in a country with high standards of living (Switzerland). In contrast, parallel results were not observed in a country with low standards of living (Côte d’Ivoire). In this study, Swiss and Ivorian participants wrote about unemployment (as in the previous study) or not. Importantly, unemployment is low in Switzerland and high in Côte d’Ivoire. Hence, it represents a greater discrepancy from the standard in Switzerland than in Côte d’Ivoire. Consistent with expectations, the idea of being unemployed increased suicide thought accessibility in Switzerland but not in Côte d’Ivoire.

In yet another study (Chatard & Selimbegović, 2011, Study 3), Swiss participants first reported their subjective happiness. They were then exposed to a newspaper article reporting that more than 90% of the Swiss declare being satisfied with their working and housing conditions and the balance between professional and family life. Once again, those who failed to reach the standard (i.e., the unhappy), but not those who matched it (i.e., the happy) showed an increase in suicide-thought accessibility. Interestingly, in this study, participants were reminded of something positive (high life satisfaction). It thus seems that even positive contents can bring suicide to mind (these results were conceptually replicated in the Czech Republic, Chatard & Selimbegović, 2011, Study 4).

As underlined before, people have ways to escape other than suicide, and if suicide reaches consciousness it is likely to be rejected as a “solution” (Shneidman, 1996). Some ways of coping include using substances that alter the state of consciousness (e.g., alcohol and drugs, Carver et al., 1989). If such behaviors serve the function of escape, then failure should increase the desire to use these substances. This idea was put to test in Chatard and Selimbegović’s (2011) fifth study, carried out with regular marijuana smokers as participants. They were asked to recall either their greatest failure in life (failure condition), or the situation that provoked their greatest anger ( control condition). Importantly, both situations were negative, but anger was not expected to increase suicide thought accessibility. Additionally, participants were asked when they would roll their next joint. Results showed that suicide was more accessible and that participants intended to smoke marijuana sooner in the failure than in the anger condition.

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