Monday, 27 January 2014

Why do people think suicide is morally wrong?

Public surveys show many people view suicide as morally wrong. When you ask them why, they usually refer to the harm caused to the deceased's family and friends, and to the victim themselves. However, a fascinating new study uncovers evidence suggesting that a more important reason people feel suicide is morally wrong is because they see it as tainting the victim's soul. This is the case even for liberal non-religious people. The finding is another example of how our implicit moral judgments are often at odds with our conscious, explicitly stated moral reasoning.

Joshua Rottman and his colleagues presented 174 US participants (114 women; average age 21) online with eight fabricated obituaries that had the appearance of a real obituary published in a paper. The participants were mostly non-religious liberals. Half of them read obituaries about people killed by murder; the other half read obituaries for people killed by suicide. The wording for the obituaries began with a simple statement (e.g. "Louise Parker, who was 68 years old, died on January 11, 2008 due to [suicide/homicide]"). Apart from that single word difference at the end of the opening statement, the remainder of each obituary - a respectful description of the deceased - was the same for participants in the two conditions.

After reading each obituary, the participants were asked to rate the death according to how morally wrong it was; how angry it made them feel; how disgusted it made them feel; how much harm had been done; and whether the victim's soul had been tainted. The order of the questions was randomised. The participants were also asked to state explicitly why each suicide/homicide is morally wrong.

Overall, homicides were judged more morally wrong than suicides, as you'd expect. However, on average the suicides were also rated as morally wrong, consistent with previous public surveys. The most revelatory finding is that the participants' ratings for the moral wrongness of suicides was not correlated with their ratings of the harm caused. Rather, their judgment of moral wrongness was correlated with their ratings of how much the victim's soul was tainted. Consistent with this, the participants' feelings of disgust predicted their ratings for the moral wrongness of suicide, but their feelings of anger did not.

In contrast, to the findings for suicide, ratings for the moral wrongness of homicide were associated with judgments about harm, but not ratings about the tainting of victims' souls. "These results support our principal hypothesis," the researchers said, "suicide, but not homicide, is considered immoral when there are elevated concerns about spiritual taint (impurity), while the same is not true for concerns about harm." Intriguingly, this result was at odds with the participants' explicitly stated reasons for finding suicide morally wrong, which tended to focus on harm caused.

What about the participants' religious and political beliefs? As you might expect, those who were more conservative and religious tended to judge suicide as more morally wrong. But perhaps the most astonishing result from this research is that the link between seeing the victim's soul as tainted and seeing a suicide as morally wrong was just as strong for the non-religious and liberal as for the religious and conservative.

"These results suggest that even if people explicitly deny the existence of religious phenomena, natural tendencies to at least implicitly believe in souls can underlie intuitive moral judgments", the researchers said. The research has some limitations, as the researchers acknowledged - for example, all the participants were from the US, and there's a need to examine other forms of suicide, such as suicide bombers. Also, the causal role of beliefs about purity has not yet been proven.

However, the authors are to be credited for publishing several replications of their main finding (not detailed here). "A greater understanding of the processes that are relevant to the condemnation of suicide victims may prove useful for the millions worldwide who are affected by this widespread tragedy", the researchers concluded.


Rottman J, Kelemen D, and Young L (2014). Tainting the soul: Purity concerns predict moral judgments of suicide. Cognition, 130 (2), 217-26 PMID: 24333538

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Rachel said...

Intriguing. I'm surprised enough by the lack of relationship with religion to wonder whether the measure of religiosity was inadequate (I don't have access to the full text). Given the prevalence (at least in the UK) of "spiritual but not religious," I wonder whether people with quite strong religious tendencies were classified as non-religious.

I must also pick you up on a small slip towards tabloidism: "The Real Reason"? Surely this is likely to be just one of several reasons. For example, a widow of my acquaintance heard about a suicide and said, "How could he do that when other people fight so hard for life?" To her, exercising the choice to die was disrespectful to those who didn't have that choice.

Christian Jarrett said...

hi Rachel - re measuring religiosity, the paper just says this: "At the conclusion of the study, participants completed a brief demographic survey measuring political and religious beliefs." Note that people who were more religious were more likely to judge suicides as morally wrong. However, religiosity made no difference to the strength of the correlation between judgments of tainted soul and moral wrongness of suicide.

Sorry if the headline is misleading - I will give it a tweak. I was meaning this is the real reason, as opposed to perceived harm, which is the reason that people usually give.

Rachel said...

Hm, yes I guess the correlation between religiosity and judgement of suicide as wrong does lend weight to the validity of the measure.

I hope you don't take my criticisms too seriously, I mean it only as a friendly nudge. I think your blog is excellent, which is why I keep reading and commenting.

Christian Jarrett said...

thanks Rachel! Please keep commenting - I really enjoy reading your thoughts and seeing a new perspective on things.

C Williams said...

Interesting. Maybe the unreligious were thinking of movies. Goings on with the soul are popular in film right now - just think of the new movie "I, Frankenstein" in which the main character (Adam Frankenstein) searches for the existence of his own soul.

Ramesh Raghuvanshi said...

Suicide not only morally wrong but you are erasing all future possibilities of your life.In suicide you finish your life on particular point and finish there your future,who know how your future will take turn?What may be worse happened your life you to endure it for your future.Suicide is greatest crime against nature,for future generation if you live possibilities that you may contribute some very valuable for future generation

Lindsay said...

Average age 21? Pffft. What do they know?

Lindsay said...

I've been suicidal, so I get very angry at people who think they have the right to judge someone who acts on it. Get back to me when you've experienced pain so bad you would annihilate yourself to make it end, you sanctimonious fuckwit.

(Not you, Christian --- the generic "you." Also sorry about the cussing, but that is how strongly this makes me feel.)

Anonymous said...

I'm with Lindsay on this.

Most of the time, I wish I were dead. I don't commit suicide because of the very real possibility, through any method that's highly lethal, that I might fail to kill myself but instead cripple myself (not highly lethal would be written off as parasuicide). I know that nothing that would make my life worth living could possibly happen, because I have a pretty narrow view of what would.

I really believe there should legally exist assisted suicide centers, where with a 60 day cooling off period anyone could have themselves put to sleep (making sure the person actually dies and does not maim himself). When dogs or cats are constantly suffering, we generally consider it the most humane action to put them to sleep, and I believe that with a human (who asks for it with a 60 day cooling off period) it is also the most humane.

I'm very surprised about the "tainting of the soul" belief even among the non-religious, because non-religious people have no reason to believe that souls exist. I'm even in the "spiritual, not religious" camp (NOT an atheist) and I don't believe in souls.

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