Tony Veitch and the economics of suicide

The Herald are reporting that Tony Veitch has (once again) attempted to take his life. The story is very sad but did get me thinking about whether suicide is ever a rational response.

There is some literature (here, here and here) on this very topic. The most interesting thing for me was that an attempt at suicide can be rational so long as the attempt is not successful. A failed attempt tends to significantly increase income (by 20.3% on average, relative to those who consider suicide but do not make an attempt) as more resources, such as healthcare and affection, are made available to the person who made the attempt. The more serious the attempt, the greater is the impact on income (36.3% on average for so-called ‘hard-suicide’ attempts).

This economic approach to suicide runs counter to the traditional view that suicide occurs at a fragile point in time when someone is acting irrationally.

In the instance of Tony Veitch, it is difficult to see how a positive income effect would be gained from his numerous attempts at suicide, given his broadcasting career has been ruined by the case. However, this might be underplaying the positive, non-financial, effect that a ‘cry for help’ can have on an individual. On the other hand, Tony Veitch could simply be acting irrationally.

Whether Tony Veitch is acting rationally or irrationally, one thing is certain – the case is extremely tragic.

  • http://www.tvhe.co.nz rauparaha

    Interesting post, goonix. I read the Slate article differently: I didn’t think it implied that the attempt has to be unsuccessful to be rational. It just said that you had to have a higher expected value of life if you did it, which is almost tautological. Presumably that means an estimation of the probability of survival multiplied by the benefit has to be greater than the cost of going on with life as it is.

    I also wonder if a real options analysis can be applied here. Presumably (since humans are so bad at prediction) there is high volatility in the expected future value of life. In that case, might there be value to delaying the decision to end one’s life, even when things seem hopeless?

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  • http://www.econ.canterbury.ac.nz/eric Eric Crampton

    Goonix: do these studies account for mean reversion?

    Suppose that a rational person will attempt suicide when the expected value of the future utility stream becomes zero or negative; a serious negative income shock could drive that, and mean reversion could then drive the up-tick post-attempt for those unsuccessful.

  • http://www.dirtyfilthy.net dirtyfilthy

    I think a view of economics that only equated “utility” with “income” is incredibly simplistic. Suicide is rational in the case where future utility is actually negative in the long run.

  • http://www.tvhe.co.nz goonix

    @rauparaha
    I think you’re right – my sentence on suicide being a rational response was hastily constructed.

    @Eric Crampton
    Good question Eric. I haven’t reads the papers in detail. If there’s an academic around that wants to dig through it, be my guest. :P

  • http://www.kiwipolitico.com/index.php?author=27 Lew

    I think it’s somewhat distasteful to refer to suicide in terms of material utility, but nevertheless.

    A failed attempt tends to significantly increase income (by 20.3% on average, relative to those who consider suicide but do not make an attempt) as more resources, such as healthcare and affection, are made available to the person who made the attempt. The more serious the attempt, the greater is the impact on income (36.3% on average for so-called ‘hard-suicide’ attempts).

    rauparaha: It just said that you had to have a higher expected value of life if you did it, which is almost tautological.

    Toexpand on rauparaha’s comment: It begs the question about intent. An attempt at suicide as a rational means of gaining some payoff (such as in income, or whatever) doesn’t make sense, since if the suicide succeeded, there would be no payoff. To classify an attempt at suicide as rational action with a view to increased support, income, etc. is to suppose that survival was the purpose all along, which means that the attempt wasn’t in fact a genuine attempt. Therefore the rational action on this basis would not be to attempt suicide, but to appear to attempt suicide – the so-called `cry for help’. It’s like the aphorism: if you try to fail and succeed, which have you done?*

    That is a very tricky proposition which I think ascribes far too much rationality to the suicidal person involved, and if taken to a rational policy conclusion could lead to the assumption that suicide attempts are mostly `cries for help’ – while they might be, it strikes me as socially wise to pretend they’re not and treat any such attempt as a genuine attempt (as we do), rather than assume they’re not and through inaction allow people to kill themselves. A value judgement, but not, I think, a very controversial one.

    In the case of Tony Veitch, as in any individial (non-theoretical) case, it becomes yet more complicated – there have (allegedly) been several attempts, all of which he has survived, and to which family, authorities, etc. have responded with proper alacrity and care. It’s hard to see how he could be trying a play for greater support or financial advantage here; he has plenty of both in the immediate term and I think he would likely be welcomed back into broadcasting in due course if he would show the sort of contrition society requires of those who commit domestic violence. It’s possible the attempts are an attempt to curry media or community sympathy, but I think that’s too cynical. Occam’s Razor suggests that the combined factors of possible loss of his career and good public name, stress on his family, guilt and self-loathing, criticism (IMO, deserved) because of his apparent reluctance to back down and demonstrate genuine remorse have made him fucked-up, and when people are fucked-up they don’t always act rationally.

    L

    * Not to say that attempted suicide can’t be a rational action in itself (such as in cases of terminal illness), but it’s not for the reasons here.

  • rainman

    I listened to an LSE podcast recently that mentioned the difference between “Econs” and “Humans” – it wasn’t the primary point of the podcast, but the speaker was basically saying that many economic models assume certain thinking and options analysis (on the part of Econs) that is actually unlike that exhibited by real humans. Perhaps badly expressed on my part, but that was the gist. There are few places where this is more visible than in this post and it’s associated comments (excluding Lew’s).

  • skar

    i am delighted to see the police and emergency services react so quickly when a person go for a drive and people call the police to inform they may be attempting suicide. i wonder if this responce is equal to all citizens in nz
    if tony wanted to successfully suicide research indicates that he have been successful. he has resources means and time. however he is not fully committed and this is yet another pathetic attempt by him to reach out for help.
    so reardless of who he is and what he has done we must undertake steps to help him and give him a chance to heal.
    mentla health should have him contained in a secure unit until stabilised instead of wasting emergency serives time chasing him throug the waikato.

  • Miguel Sanchez

    Question: does it count as a suicide attempt if you spend the whole time sitting in your car, texting “goodbye cruel world” messages to the media?

  • gloria hanif

    Depressed people shouldnt be laughed at esp at such a time when love & understanding is what any decent human being can offer them.I wish Tony Veitch & his ex-partner all the best in the future. There is always peace after tribulation so lets all shift our attention and energy to other worthwhile causes so that this world of ours will be a safe haven to enjoy & appreciate.

  • http://isomorphismes.tumblr.com/ isomorphisms

    The Slate article leaves out hyperdiscounting—which is where those dunder-headed “suicidologists” would have one up on the economists.