Proof that the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to commit suicide

August 22nd, 2010 by thomas

From Times Online

Only the bright commit suicide

Does a controversial theory linking intelligence with suicide rates help to explain why so many scientists kill themselves?

THE PAST few months have seen a series of notable suicides by scientists. Yesterday we heard details of the strange pact in which Dr Michael Griffin and his wife Adele took their lives in a Devon hotel. Two days before that, Harold Shipman killed himself. Early this month the body of Richard Stevens, a haematologist, was found in the Lake District; we await the Hutton report into the suicide of Dr David Kelly.

These are disparate cases: no one seeks to associate a mass murderer with a blameless government scientist or a troubled consultant physician. Yet these men had things in common: they were intelligent and analytical, with similar educational backgrounds. Could there be a theme that helps to explain their suicides?

Writers, psychologists and philosophers have long argued over the reasons for suicide. The problem they all face is that statistics on the subject are notoriously slippery. Take seasonal variations. Some people claim that suicide is related to climate and light, and especially to “the winter blues”. It is true that suicidal thoughts reach a peak in January (when the Samaritans get most calls). Yet in the West the peak months for actual suicide attempts are, universally, the spring and summer months of April, May and June (the only geographical exception is the Antipodes, where suicide rates peak in their late spring: November and December).

The deeper you dig, the more confusing it gets. More women claim to have depressed or suicidal feelings, yet more men commit the deed. Could it be, as some scientists argue, that this is because men are less averse to violence, even self-inflicted? There are further complexities: how do we explain the surreal fact that immediately after Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, rates of self-murder in the US rose by 12 per cent? Or that suicide attempts are most common at both extremes of the adult age range, ie, among over-65s and those in their teens and twenties? Or that suicide rates can fall dramatically when the means become less accessible (as happened in Britain when we switched from lethal coke gas to less dangerous natural gas)?

The subject is a swirl of conflicting data into which only the bravest of scientists will venture to step. One who has is Martin Voracek, a researcher at the University of Vienna Medical School. In a paper to be published in the next few months, the psychologist makes a claim that may shed some light on those suicides of scientists. His startling theory is that suicide can be positively correlated with intelligence — in other words, the smarter people are, the more likely they are to kill themselves.

Voracek’s starting point is the fact that suicide is a growing problem in the Western world: someone commits suicide in America every 15 minutes, and the World Health Organisation claims that suicide accounts for at least 2 per cent of Western deaths. The rate of suicide in parts of Sweden has risen by 250 per cent in the past 40 years.

Most sociologists have argued that this is because of the so-called anomie of modern Western life — that something in urbanised, industrialised society alienates us from friends, faith and family, the mainstays of human happiness. Voracek, though, argues that the higher rate of Western suicide could be because people are, on average, more intelligent in the Western world (and are apparently becoming more intelligent still, as worldwide average IQs rise over time — something called the Flynn effect).

To back up his theory, Voracek has taken the controversial tables of national average IQ values published recently by Professor Richard Lynn and his colleague at the University of Ulster, Tatu Vanhanen. But instead of correlating these IQ levels with national GDP per head (as, provocatively, Lynn and Vanhanen have), Voracek has compared the various IQ averages with national suicide rates.

The results are, prima facie, impressive: there is a strong correlation between suicide rates and national average IQ in most of the countries surveyed. For instance, Jamaica, with a low average IQ of 72, has suicide rates of 0.5 for men and 0.2 for women (all suicide figures are per 100,000 person-years). Albania, with an average IQ of 90, has low suicide rates of 2.9 and 1.7. Germany by contrast, with its average IQ of 102, has suicide rates of 21.8 and 8.3; Japan, with an average IQ of 105, has suicide rates of 25 and 12.

Wherever you look, and whatever the culture, the same pattern can be seen: in Azerbaijan, Greece, Kuwait and Chile there are lower average IQ levels and lower suicide rates; in Austria, Korea, Singapore and Norway there are higher average IQ levels and higher suicide rates. One exception is the UK, with a relatively high average IQ (100) and a relatively low (at least for the West) suicide rate — 11 for men and 3.3 for women.

The obvious objection to these statistics is that suicide rates still have nothing to do with brains and everything to do with industrialisation, affluence and modernity — that advanced capitalist societies are less nurturing of the troubled soul. Yet Voracek insists that he has “partialed out” the variables of wealth, rate of divorce, unemployment and average age. He says that even when you make these factors statistically irrelevant, there is still a correlation between national IQ and the rate of self-murder.

Voracek also cites something called the Terman Genetic Study of Genius. This was a study of the entire life cycles of 1,528 gifted Californian children born in 1920-21. One of many fascinating facts revealed by the Terman study was that the suicide rate among these super-bright individuals was 33 per 100,000 person-years — about three times the average rate for the US (which is, anyway, fairly high on a global ranking).

So why should there be such an apparently strong connection between intelligence and suicide? Voracek points to a 1981 study by Denys deCatanzaro, a Canadian evolutionary psychologist. In his research, deCatanzaro posited the idea that for suicide to take place, a certain threshold of self-awareness, of intelligence, must be crossed. Such higher intelligence could only be human, hence the rarity if not impossibility of animal “suicide”.

DeCatanzaro went on to suggest that from an evolutionary perspective — excepting certain religious beliefs and military scenarios — almost the only time it could make Darwinian “sense” for someone to commit suicide was when they became aware, or wrongly convinced, that they were probably not going to have more or any children, and/or that they were becoming a burden to kin who might otherwise go on to have children.

It is a reductionist viewpoint but a powerful one — and using these concepts, Voracek wonders whether anyone who can achieve such a critical and lucid self-analysis is simply more likely to be smart.

But deCatanzaro, though he has yet to read Voracek’s paper, rejects the Voracek theory. For a start, the Canadian thinks that comparative IQ studies such as those of Lynn and Vanhanen are clumsy and “could be viewed as racist”.

DeCatanzaro believes instead that suicide-rate differentials are explainable by — yes — modernity and industrialisation. He adds that there are, anyway, huge problems with national suicide-rate comparisons because the methods and reliability of data collection are so different. Authorities in Roman Catholic countries, for example, are loath to condemn anyone to Hell for the mortal sin of self-murder; hence, perhaps, the low rates of recorded suicide in Latin America.

In this argument deCatanzaro is backed up by Dr Rory O’Connor, senior lecturer in health psychology at the University of Stirling and head of its suicidal behaviour research group.

Dr O’Connor likewise rejects the intelligence/suicide thesis, and also cites the case of Roman Catholicism. “Look at Ireland,” says O’Connor. “Suicide rates have exploded there in the past 40 years. In part this is because suicide has got more common, but even more important is the fact that the manner of recording suicide has changed, has become more assiduous, and this is because the religious culture has changed. Voracek’s thinking is very problematic. Suicide is multi-factorial.”

Yet there is some support for Voracek’s suicide/smartness correlation. Dr Keith Ashcroft, a forensic psychologist based in Manchester, notes that “suicide is indeed more common among the professional classes: scientists like vets and dentists have notoriously high suicide rates”.

In fact, Ashcroft has a telling theory of his own. He thinks that “emotional intelligence” is relevant tothe IQ/suicide question. Ashcroft wonders whether people with very high IQs might tend to have lower emotional intelligence — ie, inferior “people skills”. After all, everyone is aware of the cliché of the lonely genius, unable to fit in with society, who is eventually driven to suicide by his isolation.

It is certainly a plausible image. But given the swirl of conflicting facts, and the sensitivities of the entire subject, perhaps the only thing we should say assuredly is that we need a lot more research.

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6 Responses to “Proof that the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to commit suicide”

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  1. I couldn’t agree more – my close friend killed himself last week and was a brilliant healthcare practitioner. Troubled beyond belief but when it came to work, second to none…

  2. Thanks for this, very interesting. This sways me more toward a theory that my mind all by itself has been pondering; is that it’s ‘society’ that has caused us to fear isn’t it? And in the bible it says that we are ‘not of the flesh’ – in this article it mentions how animal suicide doesn’t exist. So my theory (and it is just a theory so pls no-one attack me if it is not your theory) is that it could be possible that suicide is in fact a brave and right thing to do (for some people), maybe those that see through this life (see through the life of the flesh) which is quite clearly materialistic and evil. One thing I will stand up for and against anyone who argues about it is that suicide is NOT a weak ‘giving up’ act, it is extremely difficult, it is the ultimate test of all your emotions and resources and it is you choosing to face THE BIGGEST fear that there is – death! Whether it is right or wrong in individuals eyes is not the point, it is BRAVE and not weak.

    The ultimate fear is death and most struggle against that their entire lives, even if one of those struggles (tho most common one) is to ignore all the corruptness and evil going on around us and ‘tow the line’ in order to keep yourself safe. Maybe life as a human being was given to you for you to see that and stop that and any other fight to stay alive is selfish. Only your spirit matters and holding onto your body is like holding onto any other material thing. Maybe life was given to you to use this body no matter what to fight evil? Maybe it was given to you to share love amongst your fellow men (and I don’t mean just the ones in your village I mean globally, so to actively protest against ANY human acts of cruelty). If that was the case then a lot of us would die (at the hands of the opposition) relatively young. Maybe age is the punishment that we’re given for not using our lives correctly. Maybe we were never meant to get old, maybe that in itself shows weakness and slavery to the body (making yourself of the flesh when you shouldn’t)?
    Isn’t it therefore the same as money? If someone gave you money (or say lots of food) and instead of sharing it and feeding your fellow men, you keep hold of it in your own cupboard to ensure that you yourself are fed in the future – instead of only thinking of NOW. Only NOW exists, the future doesn’t. So if you hold onto this body (the flesh) and don’t use it to do good then you’ve lost the purpose anyway haven’t you?

  3. Very interesting, couldn’t agree more. I have always been saying this my entire life and now it’s written down and documented by a brave person thank God. I always my whole life, said that most ‘insane people’ are not insane and I was always deeply troubled by how they are treated in every aspect of society.

  4. I like your point Harry, firstly about having an opinion and not wishing to be attacked for it! Well done!
    Secondly – animal suicide – is that simply a lack of ability of methods or opportunity (opposable thumbs are required to take off medicine bottle tops etc :) )
    The theory that a person requires to know oneself to dislike, kind of pushes the argument to the side of no other animals can’t, however if you have pets you will know that they have little quirks, some may even say character – so I’m not entirely sure of that one! There is a bridge in Scotland where it’s reported (not by the tabloids either) that over 600 dogs have killed themselves…

    Thirdly Harry, your point about suicide being a brave act…I would agree with to a certain extent. It has certain aspects which if viewed objectively could be seen as selfless however there is an element of selfishness also. This is not so strange though as suicide is a very personal & individual act. I feel that the human “being”, depending on your viewpoint of nature or nurture; is hardwired for one thing – survival of the species.
    Killing yourself goes against that instinct and survival is not the strongest human instinct – it is there no doubt – our fight or flight response shows us that. Therefore, no-one decides easily to end their own life, I know this from professional and personal experience. It is not something that we suddenly decide to do; it takes various factors – time being the first…..then we add the emotional/ psychological/ spiritual & biological traumas/ chemical imbalances/ stress/ environmental changes and many more. It hurts each and every one day after day until we make the choice to end it all or live for now, because like you pointed out Harry, we only have now. Right here, right now.

  5. Very interesting thread, and also very interesting comment by Harry.
    I am an ex-Christian, but I still highly respect some of the teachings in the Bible particularly of Jesus’. Perhaps this whole thing can be linked to what He (Jesus) said about “Those who want to *save* their lives will lose them. But those who lose their lives for Me (God) will find them.”, and also the teaching to not worry about what to eat & what to wear, because LIFE is far more important than those things.
    I figure that the same thing also were said by Buddha, of losing the accumulation of materials. All religions seem to *essentially* speak or warn against this accumulation of wealth (ie: money), and to focus more in IMmaterial things. They, and many other spiritual teachings all seem want to show that we, as humans, need to be able to see PAST all the materialistisms to focus on the ESSENCE or far more truer things.

    And regarding dogs and “animal suicide” thing, time made an interesting comment too. Sometimes I myself am amazed, and wonder if we have somehow way too ‘underestimated’ the importance of animals (might has to do with we, humans, have been viewing ourselves as “most superior” species, while it’s not entirely true. there are many things that animals are more superior in certain things than us humans! like the sense of hearing, the ‘better’ eye/seeing, consciousness relaying among ants (very interesting fact!), and many others).
    I somehow can sense that dogs have a “feeling” too, not only a mere “animal instinct”. and yes, I have also seen dogs whose lives are very very hard in the street, that I can somehow sense their ‘feeling’, and it’s also apparent from their eyes, that as if they’re saying “please KILL me, as I don’t want to live in this hellish life anymore!”
    so yeah, maybe that would support time’s article link above.
    I feel that there still should be more researches done in regards to the ‘hidden’ potentials of the animals, for clues to discover more ‘Truth’.

  6. “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

    matthew 16

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