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What suicide rates teach us about human behavior
In the late 1960’s public health officials in England noticed a promising trend. The rate of suicide rate had fallen. And it kept falling. But what caused the drop?
In the late 1960’s public health officials in England noticed a promising trend. The rate of suicide rate had fallen. And it kept falling. Year after year for almost a decade. Altogether the English suicide rate dropped by 30 percent. What caused this massive drop?
Researchers delved into the issue and discovered something odd. It wasn’t an overall drop in suicides, in fact, some suicide methods had increased.
Instead, the entire drop came from a single type.
Gas poisoning. More commonly called “sticking your head in the oven.”
Before 1958, the UK had primarily used coal-based gas to heat and cook at home. The high levels of toxic carbon monoxide in the gas meant people could poison themselves in a few minutes with no planning necessary.
Just a simple decision, then put your head in an unlit oven for a couple of minutes and it was done. Easy and painless, making it the most common form of suicide.
But, after 1958, the country began to switch to North Sea natural gas, which was non-lethal. As each new area of the country converted, the suicide rate plummeted.1
The fascinating part — the suicide rate stayed down permanently.
A gas change became one of the most successful anti-suicide campaigns in history.
Why did it work?
It added friction to the process. It eliminated an immediate, painless suicide option. Instead of deciding to end your life and act on it immediately, you needed to make a little more of a plan. Those extra steps were the only friction necessary to drop the suicide rate by a third.
Seems hard to believe. The effect of friction is also seen in suicides with the drug acetaminophen (the generic name for Tylenol). The suicide rate is lower in regions of the UK where the drug sells in individual blister packs compared to regions where it’s largely sold in bottles.2
The little friction required in popping out each pill3 versus tossing back a handful of pills drastically decreases how often it’s successfully used. 4
If you want more of something, make it easy. If you want less, make it hard.
1. Inside the Nudge Unit: How small changes can make a big difference: by David Halpern, D. (2015). Ebury Publishing. Pages 67-69
3. A study of this form of overdose found 41% planned their overdose for less than an hour and overall 74% planned their suicide attempt for less than 4 hours.
4. The UK under the National Health Service has further restricted the number of acetaminophen pills that can be purchased at one time at a single pharmacy. This may seem a bit nanny state by American standards, but it has resulted in the virtual elimination of this form of suicide in the UK.