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

The last study (Chatard & Selimbegović, 2011, Study 6) aimed to show that cognitive accessibility of concepts related to escape and relief increases under the same conditions as suicide-thought accessibility does. Young female participants first reported their body satisfaction (Garner, Olmstead, & Polivy, 1983). They were next presented either a slim top model (an unattainable standard, modified in Photoshop – failure condition), or a more realistic model (also modified in Photoshop – control condition), before taking part in a lexical decision task. Letter strings were presented one by one on a computer screen. Participants’ task was to indicate for each letter string whether or not it was a word. Among words, some were suicide-related, some were escape- and relief-related, and some were neutral. Response times were collected by the computer. The more a concept is accessible, the quicker the participants should be to identify a related word. Indeed, participants in the failure condition were quicker to identify escape- and suicide-related words than those in the control condition. This effect increased as body satisfaction decreased, and was not found on neutral words. Needless to say, participants’ body mass index indicated they were quite normal according to medical standards. Interestingly, suicide increased in accessibility along with escape-related concepts such as “calm” or “peace”.


Taken together, these findings show that failure to attain standards of value can make thoughts of suicide increasingly accessible. Furthermore, this effect is associated with a motivation to escape self-awareness, and is particularly strong when failure is important. Importantly, the observed pattern cannot be explained by an increase in death-related thought accessibility, and thus seems to be specific to thoughts of suicide. These results concord with theories of self-awareness and suicide as escape, as well as with recent theoretical insights about the cognitive underpinnings of motivation.

They have quite important implications and raise interesting questions. For instance, if death-thought accessibility reflects fear of death, as has been shown in TMT research, suicide-thought accessibility may reflect fear of life. Indeed, when one is confronted with the fact that (s)he does not match personal or cultural standards of value, (s)he may be afraid of living a life unfulfilled, a life of disappointment colored by self-dislike (Becker, 1973). Under these conditions, fear of death may be shadowed by fear of life, bringing thoughts of suicide closer to consciousness. Taking into account the existence of fear of life and studying the conditions that make it dominate human psychological functioning may complement our picture of fundamental human motivations.


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