Decision-making Competence and Attempted Suicide

J Clin Psychiatry. 2015 Dec;76(12):e1590-7. doi: 10.4088/JCP.15m09778.

Abstract

Objective: The propensity of people vulnerable to suicide to make poor life decisions is increasingly well documented. Do they display an extreme degree of decision biases? The present study used a behavioral-decision approach to examine the susceptibility of low-lethality and high-lethality suicide attempters to common decision biases that may ultimately obscure alternative solutions and deterrents to suicide in a crisis.

Method: We assessed older and middle-aged (42-97 years) individuals who made high-lethality (medically serious) (n = 31) and low-lethality suicide attempts (n = 29). Comparison groups included suicide ideators (n = 30), nonsuicidal depressed participants (n = 53), and psychiatrically healthy participants (n = 28). Attempters, ideators, and nonsuicidal depressed participants had nonpsychotic major depression (DSM-IV criteria). Decision biases included sunk cost (inability to abort an action for which costs are irrecoverable), framing (responding to superficial features of how a problem is presented), underconfidence/overconfidence (appropriateness of confidence in knowledge), and inconsistent risk perception. Data were collected between June 2010 and February 2014.

Results: Both high- and low-lethality attempters were more susceptible to framing effects as compared to the other groups included in this study (P ≤ .05, ηp2 = 0.06). In contrast, low-lethality attempters were more susceptible to sunk costs than both the comparison groups and high-lethality attempters (P ≤ .01, ηp2 = 0.09). These group differences remained after accounting for age, global cognitive performance, and impulsive traits. Premorbid IQ partially explained group differences in framing effects.

Conclusions: Suicide attempters' failure to resist framing may reflect their inability to consider a decision from an objective standpoint in a crisis. Failure of low-lethality attempters to resist sunk cost may reflect their tendency to confuse past and future costs of their behavior, lowering their threshold for acting on suicidal thoughts.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Competency / psychology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Suicidal Ideation*
  • Suicide, Attempted / psychology*