Suicide is widely deemed immoral because it 'taints the soul,' study shows

December 19, 2013

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. (12-19-13) - Suicide is a major public health issue; it takes the lives of more than a million people each year. It is also widely believed to be immoral. Why do people so commonly believe it is wrong for people to take their own lives? According to a study by researchers at Boston College and Boston University, people - even non-religious people - make this moral judgment because they believe suicide taints the purity of a person's soul. Their findings are reported in Issue 130 of the journal Cognition.

Philosophers have long debated whether suicide is considered immoral because it is harmful to others or because it is defiling and impure, said the study's lead author Joshua Rottman, a doctoral student working with Deborah Kelemen, associate professor of psychology at Boston University, and Liane Young, assistant professor of psychology at Boston College. But beyond the speculations of philosophers, what do people actually believe about this issue?

In order to find out, the researchers presented a sampling of American adults with obituaries describing suicide or homicide victims, and then asked them a series of questions regarding their reaction to what they had read.

The responses showed that, while harm was associated with people's judgments about the wrongness of homicide, it did not significantly explain why people thought suicide was wrong. Instead, regardless of their political and religious views, participants were more likely to morally condemn suicide if they believed it tainted the victims' souls and if they demonstrated greater concerns about moral purity in an independent questionnaire. People's tendencies to feel disgusted by the suicide obituaries, and to feel more disgust in general, also played a significant role.

The study findings also demonstrate that, while politically conservative and religious individuals find suicide more morally wrong than do secular liberals, even self-described non-religious liberals consider suicide to be morally wrong-and do so on account of concerns about moral purity and taint. "These results suggest that even if people explicitly deny the existence of religious phenomena, natural tendencies to at least implicitly believe in souls can underlie intuitive moral judgments," said Rottman.

These findings contribute to the scientific understanding of our moral judgments--and they also shed light on the real-world issue of people's psychological reactions to suicide by explaining why suicide is stigmatized and often considered a taboo topic of conversation. "A greater understanding of the processes relevant to the condemnation of suicide victims may prove useful for people worldwide who are affected by this widespread tragedy," said Rottman.
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The study was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, John Templeton Foundation and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Read the full report, "Tainting the Soul: Purity Concerns Predict Moral Judgments of Suicide," here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027713002254

Copies of the paper are available to credentialed journalists upon request; please contact Elsevier's Newsroom at newsroom@elsevier.com or +31 20 4853564.

About Cognition

Published by Elsevier, Cognition is an international journal that publishes theoretical and experimental papers on the study of the mind. It covers a wide variety of subjects concerning all the different aspects of cognition, ranging from biological and experimental studies to formal analysis. Contributions from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, computer science, mathematics, ethology and philosophy are welcome in this journal provided that they have some bearing on the functioning of the mind. In addition, the journal serves as a forum for discussion of social and political aspects of cognitive science.

Papers are selected on the basis of their scientific quality and degree of innovation. A paper's theoretical relevance to cognition, overall soundness of the argument and degree of empirical motivation, especially from converging sources, are more important than adherence to specific methodological principles. Because Cognition enjoys a wide readership from many disciplines, authors should explicitly consider the general theoretical issues raised by their work and its relevance to other topics and methods. For more information go to: http://www.journals.elsevier.com/cognition

Boston College

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