Decision-Making Competence and Attempted Suicide

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.

J Clin Psychiatry 2015;76(12):e1590–e1597

https://doi.org/10.4088/JCP.15m09778