Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Bias in the Reporting of Suicide and Genocide





            Summary. – Reports of suicide during two genocides (in Armenia in 1915 and in India and Pakistan in 1947) are primarily of women committing suicide, often in mass, to avoid abduction and rape. It is suggested that this may be biased reporting of suicidal behavior during these genocides.


            Previous studies have reported high rates of suicide during the Holocaust, both in the ghettos and in the concentration camps (Lester, 2005) This raises the question of whether suicide was common during other genocides. Two genocides have some (albeit limited) data available: that of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and during the partition of India in 1947.




            Miller and Miller (1982) interviewed 35 survivors of the Armenian genocide, now living in California. Their informants reported that many of those deported died of thirst, hunger, disease and murder. Children were stolen, young women abducted, and women raped and mutilated. Mothers abandoned their children or gave them away to Turks, Kurds or Arabs and “not a few mothers and families committed suicide together” (Miller & Miller, 1982, p. 55).


            There are reports of hundreds of young women committing suicide by drowning (Miller & Miller, 1993, p. 96). One informant tried to drown herself in a river, but a relative pulled her out. There are reports of girls linking arms or holding hands and jumping off bridges or cliffs into the rivers. Miller and Miller hypothesized that the girls were physically and emotionally exhausted, had witnessed incredible violence, and had lost hope of survival.


            Miller and Miller documented three types of suicide. Altruistic suicide was evident in mothers who starved to give their children the limited food available or who died with their children rather than abandoning them. Despair-motivated suicides had given up hope and either drowned themselves or simply sat down on the road to die. In defiant suicide, the goal was to cheat the aggressors of the sadistic pleasure of murder. One survivor reported an incident where those escorting the Armenians were stripping the deportees of their clothes and throwing them off a cliff into the river, whereupon one woman picked up her four-year-old son and jumped with him into the river.


India and Pakistan[1]


            The plan to partition India (into India and a regionally divided Pakistan) was announced on June 3, 1947. The movement of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to other territories began in earnest in the August and September of 1947. There followed a massive disruption as more than ten million people moved from one country to the other across the western border alone. Villages were abandoned, crops left to rot, and families separated by the new borders. The governments of India and Pakistan were completely unprepared for this.


More than this disruption, there was a genocide as members of one religion raped and slaughtered those of the other religions. Estimates of the dead range from 200,000 to two million and about 75,000 women were abducted and raped by men of other religions and sometimes by men of their own religion. The torture of the women included raping and disfiguring women in front of their relatives, tattooing and branding them with ‘Pakistan, Zindabad” or ‘Hindustan, Zindabad,’ marking a half-moon on their breasts or genitalia, and amputating their breasts.


            To prevent capture, torture and death at the hands of others or forced religious conversions, people murdered their own children, spouses, parents and other significant others. Some also committed suicide. Pennebaker (2000) mentions women who jumped into wells or set themselves on fire, sometimes individually but occasionally all the women in a family together.


            Butalia (2000) talked to and recorded the experiences of those in one region during this crisis, the Punjab. She heard tales of hundreds of women jumping into wells (and sometimes being forced to jump) to avoid capture, rape, abduction and forced conversions. One informant reported watching more than ninety Sikh women jump into a well in her village in Rawalpindi on March 15th 1947 when it was under attack from Muslims. The informant jumped in too with her children, but survived because the water was no longer deep enough for her to drown. When the well filled up, villages dragged the women who were still alive out of the well (p. 35).[2] The incident was reported in the April 15th, 1947, edition of The Statesman, an English daily newspaper. The informant’s brother-in-law had already killed his mother, sister, wife, daughter and uncle, and her daughter was killed. Before they jumped, the women were given some opium mixed in water. The brother-in-law poured kerosene on himself and jumped into a fire and later perhaps his son also committed suicide.[3] Another survivor interviewed by Butalia reported seeing a girl, who was being dragged away, jump into a canal to escape and another who jumped off a roof to avoid rape and abduction (p. 271). Later, India’s Prime Minister, Nehru, visited the well, and the English closed it up.


            This incident has acquired iconic significance, illustrating the bravery and manliness of the Sikhs, although Butalia points out that it was women who died. The Statesman compared the “sacrifice” of such women to the mass immolations of Rajput women when their husbands were killed in wars. Those women who survived are typically seen as “inferior” to those who died. The deaths of those who died are seen as “saving” those who survived these times. It is likely that the villagers would have been killed, abducted and raped had the attackers not backed off. Butalia, however, noted the failure of the men in such incidents to defend their village and retaliate, but instead their acquiescence in the murder and suicide of their family members.[4] Butalia also questions the extent to which the suicides of these women were “voluntary.”[5]


            Menon and Bhasin (1998) also noted that women jumped into wells or set themselves on fire either singly or in groups. The Fact Finding Team set up by the Indian government recorded that in Bewal Village (in the Rawalpindi district), many women committed suicide by self-immolation on March 10, 1947. They put their bedding and cots in a pile, set fire to it and jumped onto it. A school teacher, whose family was in a camp that was attacked on August 26, 1947, reported that his daughter had a man try to strangle her three times, but she survived despite losing consciousness (Menon & Bhasin, 1998, p. 42). Many women carried vials of poison around their neck so as to have the means for suicide easily available should it become necessary (p. 46).


            One male informant told Menon and Bhasin that his town of Muzaffarabad was raided in October 17, 1947. The Hindus were overpowered and surrendered. Their money was taken, and they were marched away. His three sisters swallowed poison, and then several women jumped off a bridge to drown in the river. A female informant who survived this incident recalled women committed suicide using opium first and then taking a faster-acting poison. Another informant told of a woman who tried to throw her 10-month old baby on a burning pile, but someone else saved the baby. Later the mother and this baby escaped and hid in a cave. When the mother heard that her husband had been killed (falsely), she swallowed poison and died. Three women in this village refused to take the poison or kill their children, and later they were accused of cowardice, their “lack of courage in facing death” (p. 54).[6]


            Menon and Bhasin (1998), like many others, reject the term “suicide” for these deaths. In their opinion, the women did not voluntarily endorse the honor code and choose death. If they had not committed suicide, they would have been killed by their own kin and neighbors to “protect their honor.” Menon and Bhasin note that acquiescence does not imply consent, and submitting is not the same as agreeing. Pandey (2001) prefers the term “martyrdom” to describe the suicides of the Hindus and Sikhs.


            On the other hand, these women were caught in a horrendous bind. They faced rape, mutilation and torture. Some individuals might choose suicide over this. However, the role of the men in murdering their kin and forcing suicide upon them took away the women’s freedom of choice. It is unknown what these women might have done if the men had not exerted pressure. These women grew up in a culture that held these values, and they may have been sufficiently enculturated so that they would have chosen suicide “freely.”


            In contrast to the myth that has grown up around the suicides of Hindu and Sikh women during this time, Pandey (2001) pointed out that some women did flee. He reports that some boys were disguised as girls for these escapes in order to avoid death if they were captured. Some have argued that it made sense to convert to Islam in order to have their lives spared and, although some of those who advocated this were murdered by their kin, some Sikh families did convert. Pandey also noted that a few families, on both sides of the border, were willing to sacrifice young women to the abductors in order to buy security for the family (p. 195).




            The most noteworthy aspect of these, admittedly brief accounts, is that the vast majority of the suicides reported were of women. The women were, of course, subjected to horrendous violence, but their suicides, especially in case of India, are cast as heroic acts that denied the murderers satisfaction. In India, emphasis is placed on the suicides as ways of avoiding defilement by the murderers, thereby preserving the women’s purity. In India, too, many women and men were murdered by their own group for the same purpose.


            I located one report of the suicide of a man. Butalia recounted one story from information obtained from newspapers and memoirs. Zainab, a young Muslim girl, was abducted as her family tried to move from India to Pakistan, and sold to a Hindu, Buta Singh, who married her. They came to love each other and had children, but a program was set up by the two governments to “rescue” abducted women and return them to their new countries. Zainab was found and forced to leave Buta Singh. Buta Singh tried to change the decision and then to go to Pakistan. He converted to Islam and applied for a Pakistani passport. He was refused. He applied for a short-term visa which was granted. When he arrived, he found that Zainab had already been married to a cousin. Zainab, almost certainly under pressure from her family, rejected Singh in front of a magistrate, and the next day Singh threw himself under a train and died (Butalia, 2000, p. 103). His suicide note asked to be buried in Zainab’s village, but the villagers refused this request, and Singh was buried back in Lahore in India. This tale has not become a legend, with books and a movie based on it.


            The way in which these accounts are written permits several speculations. First, there is guilt on the part of the men that they could not protect their wives, sisters, mothers and children. By raising the suicides of the women to heroic proportions, they lessen the chance of being blamed for the tragedy.


            Second, there is the possibility that suicide is seen as weak and inappropriate behavior and, by reporting only the suicides of women, the men themselves avoid the stigma of suicide. Even in the present era, there is stigma attached to suicides (and, by association, to their significant others), and this stigma was stronger in previous centuries. To have reported the suicides of men during these genocides would make the men seem weak too.


            In other situations, such as the Jewish ghettos and the concentration camps in the Second World War, suicide by men was common (Lester, 2005). It is likely that men did commit suicide too during the genocides in Armenia and India but, if so, they have received less attention and documentation.




Butalia, U. (2000). The other side of silence. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lester, D. (2005). Suicide and the Holocaust. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.

Menon, R., & Bhasin, K. (1998). Borders and boundaries. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Miller, D. E., & Miller, L. T. (1982). Armenian survivors. Oral History Review, 10, 47-72.

Miller, D. E., & Miller, L. T. (1993). Survivors: An oral history of the Armenian genocide. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pandey, G. (2001). Remembering partition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pennebaker, M. K. (2000). “The will of men”: Victimization of women during India’s partition. Agora, 1(1, Summer), unpaged.

Talbot, I. (1998). Pakistan. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

[1] Only reports of suicides among Hindus were found. No accounts of suicide among Muslims could be located. This does not mean that no suicides occurred in Muslims, only that reports of such cases are absent or difficult to locate.
[2] The newspaper account reported that three women were saved.
[3] Most of the accounts of this incident mention only women, but Butalia’s informant said that boys jumped in also.
[4] Butalia noted that women were sometimes traded to the attackers in return for freedom for the rest of the community.
[5] Pandey (2001) noted that the village had been under attack for three days, and the Hindus and Sikhs had fought the attackers, but could no longer hold out.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015



David Lester


            Summary – Recent neuroscientific research on how people respond to personal and impersonal moral dilemmas is applied to explain why individuals are more comfortable with passive euthanasia than active euthanasia and why suicidal individuals use tactics to reduce the role of emotions in the decision to commit suicide.



            Greene, et al. (2001) compared the brain responses of people to personal and impersonal moral dilemmas. They presented subjects with two types of moral dilemmas. In the impersonal moral dilemma, a train is approaching a junction, and it cannot be stopped. On one of the two possible tracks, five people are working and will be killed by the train. On the other possible track, one person is working and will be killed by the train. Will you divert the train to the track with one worker? Almost all respondents say “Yes,” and they make the decision quickly.


            In the personal dilemma, there is only one track with five people working on it who will be killed by the train. The only way to stop the train is to push an individual who is sitting on a bridge off onto the track so that his body stops the train. Will you do it? The majority of respondents say “No,” and those who say “Yes” take much longer to make the decision than those who say “No.” (It should be noted that from a simple utilitarian point of view, the answer should be “Yes” in both cases. Five people would be saved for the cost of one life.)


            Greene et al. found that the brain regions that were more active in the “personal” dilemma than in the “impersonal” dilemma (e.g., the posterior cingulate gyrus) were those associated with emotional arousal, while areas associated with cognitive processing (e.g., the right middle frontal gyrus) were less active in the “personal” dilemma than in the “impersonal” dilemma.


Greene et al. concluded that emotion can play an important role in moral judgments. Pulling a switch is an impersonal act, and the decision is made quickly. It involves cognitive reasoning, and there is less emotional involvement. Pushing a person off a bridge to be killed entails a very “personal” involvement. Emotion plays a large role, and the decision to over-ride the emotional reaction by cognitive reasoning takes time.


Application to Passive and Active Euthanasia


            It has been found that medical personnel are more comfortable with passive euthanasia (for example, letting the batteries on life-sustaining equipment run down, so that the equipment stops functioning and the patient dies) than with active euthanasia (for example, turning off the electrical supply to life-sustaining equipment). Why is this so?


The parallel with impersonal and personal moral dilemmas is clear. Passive euthanasia (such as letting the batteries energizing medical equipment run down) requires less personal involvement. Calm reasoning can operate, and the decision is made more easily. Actually turning off the life-sustaining equipment is a more “personal” action and produces an emotional reaction that cognitive reasoning has to overcome.


Application to Suicide


            Suicide is, in most religions, an immoral act. Jacobs (1967) called suicide a violation of the sacred trust of life. In his examination of suicide notes, Jacobs documented how would-be suicides try to persuade themselves, others and God that their suicide is morally justifiable. They may assert that God will understand, and they ask others to pray for them. They also frequently change their religious beliefs so that they come to believe that suicide will be forgiven.


            Committing suicide is a very “personal” act. There will typically be an emotional reaction and a cognitive appraisal involved in the decision to commit suicide. The research of Greene, et al. reviewed above suggests that it takes time for the cognitive appraisal to overcome the emotional reaction.


There may be many cognitive maneuvers employed to reduce the role of emotions in the decision. For example, Spiegel and Neuringer (1963) found that completed suicides tend to avoid the use of the word suicide and suicide synonyms in their suicide notes, and they suggested that this was to reduce the dread (an emotional reaction) of committing suicide. These maneuvers may be facilitated by ingesting alcohol or other drugs (such as marijuana) prior to the suicidal act, a phenomenon observed by Chiles, et al. (1986). By reducing the role of emotions, the decision to commit suicide may be made more quickly and using primarily cognitive processes.[1]




Barnes, D. H., Lawal-Solarin, F. W., & Lester, D. (2007) Letters from a suicide. Death Studies, 31, 671-678.

Chiles, J., Strosahl, K., Cowden, L., Graham, R., & Linehan, M. (1986) The 24 hours before hospitalisation. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior, 16, 335-342.

Clements, C., Bonacci, D., Yerevanian, B., Privitera, M., & Kiehne, L. (1985) Assessment of suicide risk in patients with personality disorder and major affective disorder. Quality Review Bulletin, 11(5), 150-154.

Greene, J. D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M., & Cohen, J. D. (2001) An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science, 293, 2105-2108.

Jacobs, J. (1967) A phenomenological study of suicide notes. Social Problems, 15, 60-72.

Keith-Spiegel, P., & Spiegel, D. E. (1967) Affective states of patients immediately preceding suicide. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 5, 89-93.

Pennebaker, J. W., & Stone, L. D. (2004) What was she trying to say? In D. Lester (Ed. ) Katie’s diary (pp. 55-79). New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Spiegel, D., & Neuringer, C. (1963) Role of dread in suicidal behavior. Journal of Abnormal & Social Psychology, 66, 507-511.

[1] Related to this is the common observation that the mood of suicides tends to improve, and they seem calmer prior to the suicidal act, both in the short-term (e.g., Clements, et al., 1985; Keith-Spiegel &Spiegel, 1967) and in the months leading up to the act (e.g., Pennbaker & Stone, 2004: Barnes, Lawal-Solarin & Lester, 2007). The role of emotions in the decision to commit has been reduced.

Sunday, March 01, 2015



David Lester


            There are several annoying customs that are present in modern scholarly publishing, and they are especially common in research on suicide: The first is the insistence on a “solid” introduction.

A Solid Introduction!


            Editors and reviewers insist on that authors place the research to be reported in a “context.” This results in the first two pages of the article telling us that suicide is a major public health or mental health problem. Suicide rates will be given, suicide will be labelled as a leading cause of death, and well-known “facts” about suicidal behavior presented. Two or more “authorities” will be cited to reassure readers that research on suicide is important and that more research is needed.


            Let us be clear on this point. Lay people do not read scholarly journals. Scholars read scholarly journals. We are not writing for Time or The Huffington Post. If readers of the Archives of Suicide Research or Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior do not know that research on suicide is important, then they should be stripped of their graduate degrees. The same is true for readers of psychiatric, psychological and sociological scholarly journals.


            In this case, why are we wasting pages of scholarly journals on these unnecessary introductory paragraphs? Editors should let authors simply state at the beginning of their articles:


insert standard introductory paragraphs here


and then move onto the meaningful introductory comments.


            I often had to read articles in law journals for some of the topics I was researching, and I was amazed (and horrified) to find that articles in law journals can run to hundreds of pages. My son has a law degree from Harvard University, and he was visiting when I was signing a brief to be presented to the Supreme Court that was a lengthy document. He skipped through dozens of pages and in 30 seconds had identified the critical two pages that had the essence of the argument. I then realized what he learned in law school: how to skim through the useless pages of documents (and articles) and quickly find the point of the document.


            However, what they do not learn in law school is how to write brief articles in the first place!


Citing Recent Articles


            Admit it, those of you who teach and who use textbooks, that new edition that killed the second-hand book market, did it really have any information that wasn’t in the earlier edition? Of course not! It did have more recent articles cited (to justify the new edition), but the social sciences advance slowly, and the new edition does not have many new research findings, if any. New editions every ten years would suffice, not every three, four, or five years.


            The same occurs for scholarly articles. Editors and reviewers insist on citations of recent articles. Why?


            I typed suicid* into PsycINFO on February 26, 2015, and obtained 47,960 articles. When I restricted the search to titles, the number of articles was reduced to 25,271 articles. No-one is going to search more than first few pages (each with 10 articles). As a result, young researchers tend to be unacquainted with the research that has been published in the past. They conduct research, therefore, which they think is novel, but which was first carried out 20, 30, or even 60 years ago. When we old folk see their report, we sigh. For us, the wheel has been re-invented yet again. This fetish for citations of recent work does not add to the research report. If the ground-breaking study on the topic was conducted long ago, then citing that study is sufficient.


            There is one exception to this. It is allowed to cite Emile Durkheim’s book, but here the citation is usually Durkheim (1951), as if he wrote the book after the Second World War. I have always cited the book as Durkheim (1897) which is when the French edition was first published in Paris by Felix Alcan. One reviewer objected and asked whether I had read that edition. I lied and replied, “Bien sur.” In fact I haven’t read the English translation either, although I did own it!




            One useful modern trend is the demand that Abstracts be more complete, reporting most of the major statistics and results. Not only is this useful when working on a meta-analysis, but it spares us from reading (downloading or printing) the complete article. In fact, if Abstracts were more complete, about two pages long, we could eliminate the need to publish lengthy articles!


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

October 30, 2013

Suicide as a Mistake: A Bizarre Idea from Two Philosophers

 David Lester
            I’ve never thought that philosophers or philosophy had much to contribute to understanding suicide ever since I read what philosophers had to say about the death by suicide of Socrates (Lester, 2004). (Peggy Battin is an exception, of course!) I recently read an article in a philosophy journal that confirmed my opinion. Pilpel and Amsel (2011) proposed that a decision to die by suicide can be morally permissible and rational and yet be a mistake. This comment argues that their reasoning behind this is incorrect.

            Pilpel and Amsel discuss briefly the concepts of rationality and morality, for which various authors have proposed clear criteria. In arguing that a suicide can be a mistake, Pilpel and Amsel introduce a construct that they never define. (They say that they leave this for a later article.) However, from their article, we can decipher some clues as to what they mean by a mistake. They present a case, more about which later, and say that they “feel strongly that she is throwing her life away” (p. 116). Clearly, this phrase does not propose criteria for making a mistake in general, since most of our mistakes do not involve life and death decisions, but in the present context, throwing one’s life away is considered by Pilpel and Amsel to be a mistake. Pilpel and Amsel also characterize the reasoning of their hypothetical case of suicide as odd and absurd and as a blunder, again terms for which they propose no definition.

            Rather than proposing a new philosophical (or psychological) construct, Pilpel and Amsel seems merely to have given their subjective opinion of what is a good decision or a bad decision. For Pilpel and Amsel, choosing to die by suicide, even in a way that is meets the criteria for rationality and morality, is a bad decision. For Pilpel and Amsel, life is precious.

            To bolster their argument, Pilpel and Amsel present a hypothetical case. I remember once being scolded by a priest when I argued against the existence of Heaven by proposing my version of it (in which people lounged around in deck-chairs sipping ambrosia). Setting up a straw man, or in the present case a straw woman, is not a good way of arguing for a proposition for, even if hypothetical cases are of interest to philosophers, they are of minimal interest to those of us who are psychologists who study real suicides.

            The hypothetical woman described by Pilpel and Amsel is thinking rationally, and her suicide does not violate her moral principles, according to Pilpel and Amsel. Her motivation for suicide is that she has achieved all she set out to do, and now her life will be a steady decline. She expects to experience more frustration as she ages and less satisfaction. She decides to die at this point, a high point in her life.

            Although they are not clear on this point, Pilpel and Amsel do seem to value life. The question they fail to address is the criteria for a to-be-valued life. Socrates threw his life away. He could have proposed exile as his punishment, and his request would have been granted. Did his age make his choice to die by suicide (ordered by the court) less of a mistake? Yukio Mishima chose to die by suicide (seppuku) at his peak (creative and physical), but did his goal of political change (overthrowing the government) make his choice of throwing his life away less of a mistake.

            Many people have self-immolated to protest the government. Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in Vietnam in 1963 to protest the government’s oppression of Buddhists, and his death lives on in our memory. His death remains famous 50 years later. A mistake or not? Craig and Joan died by car exhaust poisoning in New Jersey in 1969 to protest the American involvement in Vietnam (Asinof, 1971), but readers of this essay will most likely not have heard of them. A mistake or not? Were inmates of Auschwitz who chose suicide throwing their lives away when many survived and gave witness to the horrors?

            I doubt that the construct of a mistake is a useful construct, and Pilpel and Amsel did little to convince us of its value,


Asinof, E. (1971). Craig and Joan. New York: Viking.
Lester, D. (2004). Thinking about suicide. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.
Pilpel, A., & Amsel, L. (2011). What is wrong with rational suicide. Philosophia, 39, 111-123.


Thursday, June 27, 2013

David Lester

            Levy (2010) wrote a provocative book on common errors in psychological research and theorizing. He did not focus on suicide at all but, as I read his book, I could see how his errors occasionally creep into our research and theorizing about suicide. Hence this essay in which I explore Levy’s errors in critical thinking in suicidology.

Conceptualizing Phenomena
Error 1: Language is Evaluative

            Although language may sound non-judgmental, there is often an evaluative connotation to particular words. Language, then, can affect our thoughts and attitudes and, vice versa, our thoughts and attitudes can affect our language. It is important, therefore, to not present our value judgments as objective reflections of truth.

            A good example here is from Robins, Murphy, Wilkinson, Gassner and Kayes (1959). They looked at the past history of 134 completed suicides and found that only eight were not psychiatrically ill and, of these eight, five had a terminal illness.[1] Are the results of this study objective truths? First, as we will see in Error 2, psychiatric diagnoses are constructs and not real things. Second, a perusal of other studies on this issue finds that the proportion of suicides judged retrospectively to be psychiatrically disturbed ranges from about 33% to the 94% reported by Robins, et al. Thus, it seems that the article by Robins is an opinion. Robins and his team believe that one must be psychiatrically disturbed in order to die by suicide. Their “scientific” study is merely a subjective opinion of normality versus abnormality. Their language is a value judgment that “suicidal individuals are crazy.”

Error 2: The Reification Error

            This refers to the error of regarding abstracts concepts as if they are concrete objects. Levy gives the example of self-esteem. Self-esteem is not a thing that a person has; it is a concept that psychologists have created to explain behavior. In suicidology, we typically study a behavior, attempted or completed suicide, but most of our explanatory concepts are concepts. Levy draws attention to the often-made distinction between physical and mental problems. Physical things are concrete things, whereas mental things are abstract concepts. The unconscious was not discovered; it was invented. Psychosis is not detected; it is declared.

            Levy noted that theories can be event theories (Type E) or construct theories (Type C). Bullying increases the risk of suicide is a Type E theory; perceived burdensomeness increases the risk of suicide is a Type C theory. Type E theories can be proved and refuted. Type C theories cannot be proved directly. Levy noted that we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of the unconscious. Type C theories can be evaluated only on their usefulness. For example, is Einstein’s theory of gravity (a construct) more useful than Newton’s theory of gravity. Because Type C theories cannot be disproved, people mistake them as truths, and the theories survive longer than they should after they have outlived their usefulness.

Error 3: Physical and Psychological Events occur Simultaneously

            Psychological events include perceptual, experiential, cognitive and mental variables; physical variables are biochemical, physiological, anatomical and neurological. What is the relationship between these two sets of variables. Do physical events cause psychological variables? For cause-and-effect

(i)                  Event A must occur before event B

(ii)                When event A changes, event B changes accordingly.
Physical events can occur without psychological consequences. (For example, physical events occur after death!) On the other hand, psychological events cannot occur without physical events. When we observe a patient, the physical and psychological events occur simultaneously. Therefore, Levy argues, it makes no sense to say that a patient’s problem is physical or mental. It is always both. Furthermore, if the physical and mental variables are measured at the same time, it is not possible to say that one variable caused the other.

            In most research on suicide, researchers identify physiological (and psychological) correlates of suicidal behavior. Since these are occurring simultaneously, criterion (i) is not met. In most suicide research, event A is rarely measured before event B (suicidal behavior). Furthermore, when longitudinal studies are conducted, event A is often a construct. For example, Lester (1991) studied the gifted children followed up in the Terman study at Stanford University. Lester found that the parents’ judgment that their child at age 10 had a strong desire to excel predicted suicide later in life rather than earlier in life. The parents’ judgment cannot be said to have caused their child’s later suicidal behavior. Furthermore, the desire to excel is a construct, and so we cannot conclude that this desire caused the later suicidal behavior. On the other hand, loss of the father by death or divorce and a longer pregnancy predicted suicide at an earlier age. Here were an actual event at time 1 and a behavior at time 2. This meets criterion (i) and avoids reification (Error 2).

Error 4: The Nominal Fallacy

            This fallacy involves naming a phenomenon and then thinking that we have explained it. Levy gives an example. Why does she have difficulty falling asleep? Because she has insomnia. This is a tautology. An example of this is one of the earlier explanations for the sex difference in suicide rates. Why do men die by suicide more than women while women attempt suicide more than men do? Because men have a stronger suicidal intent. This is a tautology and not an explanation.

Error 5: Dichotomous versus Continuous Variables

            Variables can be divided into two mutually exclusive categories or they can be continuous. A person who engages in a suicidal act may either survive or die - a dichotomy. But normal-abnormal or conscious-unconscious, for example, are continua. Errors occur in theorizing when scholars dichotomize variables that are continuous. This arose, for example, in discussions as to whether suicide bombers are suicides or not. Some argue that they are not suicides (e.g., Abdel-Khalek, 2004), but the level of suicidal intent is a continuous variable, not a dichotomous variable. We should, therefore, talk of degrees of suicidal intent.

Error 6: Not Considering the Opposite

            Levy noted that in order to define a concept, we need to define its opposite. To define mental illness we need to also define mental health. Levy gave an example of considering the opposite by contrasting research into changing people’s attitudes that was stimulated by McGuire and Papageorgis (1961) who considered instead the question of how we can resist attitude change, leading researchers into the study of inoculation.

            An excellent example in suicidology is an old paper by Norman Farberow (1970) in which he addressed the problem of raising a child so as to maximize the probability that the adult would die by suicide. It provided a stimulating contrast to the typical papers on how to prevent children from becoming suicidal. More recently, after years of research on risk factors for suicide, interest has turned to protective factors. In some instance, a protective factor is simply a low score on a scale measuring a risk factor, but some constructs, such as reasons for living (Linehan et al., 1983), are unique.

Error 7: All Things are the Same; Everything is Unique

            Levy noted that, when we contrast two objects, they can have no overlap, a little overlap, a great deal of overlap, and complete overlap. When comparing two objects, no matter how much they have in common, at some point there will be a conceptual fork or bifurcation in the road after which they differ. Levy called this fork the point of critical distinction (PCD). Before this point, the two objects are similar; after this point, they are different. This results in two types of error.

Error 7a: Differences Obscured by Similarities

            Here, we let the similarities between two phenomena eclipse their differences. At a telephone hotline, the crisis counselor may decide, “Here we have another typical depressed middle-aged man (or woman),” and miss the unique features of this particular caller. The crisis counselor then inappropriately applies the usual “cookie cutter” approach.

Error 7b: Similarities Obscured by Difference

            Levy gives the example of a black client telling a white counselor that the counselor could never understand his (or her) problems. The counselor might respond, “You’re right, I can’t. But I’m a woman, and I have experienced discrimination because of my sex, and so I have had similar experiences. We are both similar and different.”

            Levy suggests always asking two questions. How are these two phenomena similar? How are these two phenomena different? For example, Lester (in press) recently asked how suicide bombing, protest self-immolation and hunger strikes are alike and how are they different.

Error 8: Confusing “Is” with “Should”

            Levy called this the naturalistic fallacy, and noted four variants: (i) if something is common, then it is good, (ii) if something is uncommon, then it is bad, (iii) if something is common, then it is bad, and (iv) if something is uncommon, then it is good. With respect to (i), Levy noted once upon a time, slavery, child labor, public torture and burning books, heretics and witches were all common. Were they good?

            Levy noted that evolutionary psychology labels behaviors that propagate the genes of the individual (or the genes of his or her family group) as “natural.” It is natural for men to seek as many young female partners as possible while women prefer monogamous relationships with rich and powerful men. Does this make the sexual double standard acceptable? High suicide rates among those unable to pass on their genes effectively helps the group. Does this make it acceptable? Examples can be found of all four variants of the naturalistic fallacy.

Error 9: Correlation does not Prove Causation

            I hope we have all learned this lesson well in our undergraduate statistics and research methods courses! However, Levy noted a variant of this in which it assumed that, because two events occurred close to each other in time, one caused the other – the contiguity-causation error. We run the risk of this by giving too much weight to the “precipitating event” when trying to understand why an individual chose to die by suicide. This error results in magical thinking and superstition, as in many athletes who wear their “lucky” clothing to improve their chances of winning.

Error 10: Failing to consider Bidirectional Causation

            As we know, a correlation between two variables A and B means that A could have caused B, B could have caused A, some third variable C could have caused both A and B, or events A and B could have a bidirectional causal loop. In the 1960s, there was a debate over whether physical punishment caused misbehaving children or whether naturally misbehaving children were so difficult to control that their frustrated parents turned to physical punishment. Rather, there could have been a causal loop (or a vicious cycle) at work. A similar bi-directionality could take place in the link between, say, drug use and depression.

Error 10: Failing to Consider Multiple Causation

            Levy called this the either/or fallacy. What is the cause of depression and suicide? Is it internalized anger, learned helplessness, or too little serotonin in the central nervous system? Levy suggested replacing “or” with “and.” Levy also noted that taking the “and” approach can lead to complex linear and nonlinear combinations of variables in our theories.

Error 11: Not all Causes are Created Equal

            It is easy to find multiple causes for a behavior if we think hard enough. Why am I a professor? The four major reasons (May, June, July and August), overcompensation for the stutter I had as a child, my exhibitionistic tendencies, etc.? Why did you, who are reading this essay, decide to study suicide? Levy suggested that each contributing cause differs in weight, degree or magnitude, and we should not neglect causes with less weight.

Error 12: Different Causes, Same Effect

            A behavior, such as depression, can be caused by many factors, such as withdrawal from drugs, vitamin deficiencies, starvation, loss, failure, loneliness, trauma, irrational thought patterns, etc.  The same applies to treatment. Depression can be ameliorated by antidepressants, cognitive therapy, supportive interpersonal relationships, etc. The error comes in assuming that similar outcomes must have similar causes.

Error 13: The Fundamental Attribution Error

            Levy defines this as our bias to attribute a behavior in an individual to internal factors and minimize external factors (the situation in which the individual finds himself or herself). If you hurt me, then you are cruel. If you fail to tip me when I serve you in a restaurant, then you are stingy. This results in our tendency to blame the victim (such as the rape victim or the battered spouse). The contrast occurs when we explain our own behavior, especially if it is behavior of which we are not proud. Then we typically hold the situation as responsible. If you do well on an exam, you take the credit for being brilliant. If you fail, you blame the examiner or some other factor in the situation that was not under your control.

            Levy suggested that the fundamental attribution error comes from our cognitive bias (in a situation, we focus on the other actors) and from our motivational bias (we endeavor to satisfy our own personal needs). Levy advises us, “Never underestimate the power of the situation” (p. 102).

Error 14: The Intervention-Causation Fallacy

            A good example of this is when you have a headache and take an aspirin. The headache goes. Did you then have an “aspirin deficiency” disease that caused the headache? Modifying an event does not, per se, prove what caused the event – the treatment-etiology fallacy. The causes of most events are multiple, and so are the ways of reversing the outcome. Individuals can become suicidal from many causes, and they can be helped to a non-suicidal state using many techniques. The method we use to help them does not necessarily indicate what caused the suicidal state (although, on some occasions, it might).

Error 15: The Consequence-Intentionality Fallacy

            This is more simply phrased as the effect doesn’t prove the intent. It may in many situations, but not always. Levy gives the example of someone who cuts their wrists severely. Can we assume that their intent was to get attention – as in Farberow and Shneidman’s (1961) classic book on attempted suicide which they called The Cry for Help? Levy suggests other possible causes, including self-punishment, sensory stimulation, confirmation of life, reification of emotion, catharsis, revenge against pain, displacement of anger, psychological control and suicide. Sylvia Plath died by suicide in 1963 in London, England, using toxic domestic gas. Did she intend to complete suicide? Alvarez (1972), one of her friend’s thought not. He argued that her behavior was a cry for help and that she expected a visitor that morning who would break in and save her. In order to avoid this error, Levy suggested that we think of other possible causes for the behavior (Error 10 above).

Error 16: Relying on Feelings

            Levy calls this the “If I feel it, it must be true” fallacy. Levy noted four possibilities here.

(i) Comfortable truths: feeling good and the event is true

(ii) Comfortable falsehoods: feeling good and the event is false

(iii) Uncomfortable truths: feeling bad and the event is true

(iv).Uncomfortable falsehoods: feeling bad and the event is false

            One of the best examples of these types of fallacies is the controversial debate over the validity of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Those who believe that they have recovered such a memory or helped someone recover such a memory rely on (iii) above – if it feels bad, then it must be true. If a client of a psychoanalyst becomes uncomfortable, and even hostile, as a result of a particular interpretation made by the psychoanalyst, then this “resistance” and “defensiveness” is often used to confirm the validity of the interpretation, again an illustration of (iii).

            Levy emphasizes that one’s feelings are not an accurate or trustworthy guide to the truth.

Error 17: The Spectacular Fallacy

            This fallacy involves thinking that an extraordinary event requires an extraordinary cause. Of particular relevance to suicidal behavior, Levy notes that extraordinary human behavior (such as catatonia, hallucinations, bestiality or cannibalistic serial murder) pushes us to search for spectacular causes and to propose extraordinary theories to account for it. Levy argues that this is not a valid assumption. Extraordinary events occur sometimes by chance, as any gambler knows, or as a result of ordinary events. Psychoanalysis is based on the proposition that abnormal behavior is governed by the same principles as normal behavior. There is no qualitative difference between the two categories of behavior.

Error 18: The Pitfalls of Inductive and Deductive Reasoning

           Errors in deductive reasoning come from starting with erroneous premises and from using flawed logic. Inductive reasoning is based on data, generalizing from observations to broader principles, looking for patterns in the observations. This can lead to erroneous conclusions in several ways: (i) drawing primarily on our memory of only vivid or salient observations, (ii) ignoring statistical principles such as sample size and probability, and (iii) selectively seeking observations that are consistent with our theory and ignoring those that are inconsistent.

Error 19: Disturbing the Phenomenon by Observing It

            It is often the case that observing a phenomenon changes the phenomenon. For example, the phrasing of questions in an inventory can affect people’s responses. It has been argued that interviewing attempted suicides in the emergency room produces invalid answers to the clinician’s questions because the attempters, in all likelihood, do not wanted to be admitted to a psychiatric unit and so present themselves as hypernormal.

When interviewing survivors of those who died by suicide, the survivors may answer questions in an effort to disguise their true thoughts and feelings in order to promulgate a particular interpretation, such as avoiding admitting their own responsibility in their loved ones suicide. Lester (2013) gave a good example of this from an account by Meng (2002) of a wife, Fang, who died by suicide in China. The precipitating events for this suicide were quarrels with her in-laws and domestic violence as a victim of her husband. Her in-laws viewed Fang’s suicide as a foolish act for it cost the family a great deal in terms of cost and reputation. Fang’s parents saw Fang’s suicide as a forced decision. They blamed Fang’s in-laws, destroyed furniture in the in-laws’ house and demanded a very expensive funeral and headstone for Fang in her in-laws burial plot. The villagers gave Fang’s suicide a mystical interpretation, believing that she was taken by a ghost, which served two functions: (1) to avoid blaming Fang or her in-laws, and (2) to escape from a sense of responsibility themselves for Fang’s suicide by not intervening. The asking of questions by the investigator most likely led the interviewees to think about what the result would be for different answers that they might give and which result they preferred.

            In laboratory experiments, the researcher can sometimes use unobtrusive measures such as hidden cameras and one-way mirrors. For the study of suicide, perhaps only the study of documents, such as suicide notes and diaries, are unobtrusive ways of studying the behavior.

Error 20: Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

            Levy notes that the attitudes we have toward others can affect their behavior and certainly our judgments about those others. In victim-precipitated homicide, an individual consciously or unconsciously provokes another into killing him. In psychic homicide, an individual consciously or unconsciously encourages another to die by suicide. Some psychological research involves judges, often clinicians, making judgments about others. This is so when psychiatrists make diagnoses, but it also occurs when using judges to rate interviews or written material. Often researchers and judges are not blind to the theory and hypotheses behind the study, and this can bias the results.

Error 21: The Assimilation Bias

            Psychologists frequently categorize phenomena and behaviors, and we use schemas to do this. Our schemas are general expectations, preconceptions or theories about the phenomena we are studying. What happens when we encounter a phenomenon? If it fits into our schemas, we assimilate it.  If it does fit into our schemas, we have to accommodate, that is, shift our schemas so that now the new phenomenon fits in.

            This leads to several possible errors including, (i) noticing only that information which is consistent with our theory, (ii) selectively searching for information consistent with our theory, and (iii) distorting the information so that it fits our theory. Rosenhan’s (1973) classic study of sending normal individuals to a psychiatric inpatient unit complaining of hearing voices illustrates this bias. The eight individuals were admitted and eventually released with schizophrenia in remission after an average of 19 days (with a range of seven to fifty-two days). Everything the patients did was construed by the staff as signs of abnormality, such as taking notes and waiting for the cafeteria to open. None of the mental health personnel thought that the patients were part of a study, whereas a quarter of the patients confronted the pseudo patients and asked them why they were really in the ward.

            Levy provides a psychoanalytic joke to illustrate the assimilation bias. If a patient arrives late for a session, he is hostile; if arrives early he is anxious; and if he arrives on time, he is compulsive!!!!! Levy points out an interesting problem here. Many clinicians adopt (and perhaps believe in) a particular perspective – biomedical, psychodynamics, cognitive, behaviorist, etc. They then assimilate all information and observations into their perspective – the clinician orientation assimilation bias. Can suicidologists avoid this orientation bias?

Error 22: Confirmation Bias

            If we have a theory or a hypothesis, it may be that, when we design our research, we selectively gather information that will confirm our theory or hypothesis and we do not search for disconfirming evidence. This is called confirmation bias. Researchers show this when they select one statistical test over another because the former confirms their hypothesis better than the latter. Readers, of course, do not know how much data analysis has been tried and discarded when they read the published paper. Another form of this bias is to conduct research that only tests one’s preferred theory rather conducting research that pits your preferred theory against a rival theory.

Error 23: The Belief Perseverance Effect

            In the belief perseverance effect, researchers cling to their theory even when disconfirming evidence comes along. They discount, deny or ignore such evidence. An individual deviant can be eliminated by declaring the data from that individual to be an outlier, and sometimes the whole study can be discounted because of methodological flaws.

Error 24: The Hindsight Bias

            In a good example of this, in my early days as a research while still at graduate school, I submitted an article in which I made a clear prediction and found the opposite result. The editor, a famous psychologist, but whose name I’ll protect, rejected the paper, but gave me advice. He first suggested which journal would accept the paper, and then he told me not to predict one result and find the opposite. Predict what you found.

            How many of you, after you finished graduate school, actually choose the significance level that you will use before you run the study? How many of you had a data set, conducted a slew of analyses on the data set, and then decided what the paper would be about and what hypotheses you would test? I rest my case!

Error 25: The Insight Fallacy

            The insight fallacy is thinking that, when we understand a phenomenon, we now know how to change it. We know a great deal about the causes of suicide, but the suicide rate in the United States is steadily rising, and many suicidal individuals are in treatment but yet still die by suicide. This fallacy is also found in some therapy clients who gain insight into the causes of their problems but find it difficult to change.


Levy’s book on critical thinking and the errors we make is a stimulating book and merits study by all researchers and theorists. I hope this essay intrigues you to read it and consider whether you have made these errors yourself.



Abdel-Khalek, A. M. (2004). Neither altruistic suicide, nor terrorism but martyrdom. Archives of Suicide Research, 8, 99-113.

Alvarez, A. (1972). The savage God. New York: Random House.

Farberow, N. L. (1970). Self-destruction and identity. Humanitas, 6, 45–68.

Farberow, N. L., & Shneidman, E. S. (1961). The cry for help. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Lester, D. (1991). Childhood predictors of later suicide. Stress Medicine, 7, 129-131.

Lester, D. (in press). Suicidal protests. Behavioral & Brain Sciences.

Levy, D. A. (2010). Tools for critical thinking: Metathoughts for psychology. Long Grove, IL: Waveland.

Linehan, M. M., Goodstein, J. L., Nielsen, S. L., & Chiles, J. A. (1983). Reasons for staying alive when you ar ethinking of killing yourself. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 51, 276-286.

McGuire, W. J., & Papageorgis, D. (1961). The relative efficacy of various types of prior belief defense in producing immunity against persuasion. Journal of Abnormal & Social Psychology, 62, 327-337.

Meng, L. (2002). Rebellion and revenge: The meaning of suicide on women in rural China. International Journal of Social Welfare, 11, 300-309.

Robins, E., Murphy, G. E., Wilkinson, R. H., Gassner, S., & Kayes, J. (1959). Some clinical considerations in the prevention of suicide based on a study of 134 successful suicides. American Journal of Public Health, 49, 888-899.

Rosenhan, D. L. (1973). On being sane in insane places. Science, 179, 250-258.

[1] I might note in passing that I have to see a psychological autopsy study of completed suicides with an appropriate control groups of people who died of natural causes, with a standard interview protocol, and judges reading those protocols blind as to which group each individual is in (and, even better, unaware of the nature of the study and which groups are being compared).