On Suicide: The Grass Was Greener On the Other Side

This was written as a discussion piece [for an assignment] assuming study and familiarity with the readings associated with Thio et al.’s (2018) overview of Suicide & Self-Harm, and associated readings in the course [(i.e., Washington State University’s PSYCH-360 Deviancy)].

On Suicide: The Grass Was Greener On the Other Side

Growing up in Virginia in the 1980s with a professional-labor culture that had used “I feel like killing myself” as a colloquial term expressing frustration, and then witnessing a father threaten and attempt suicide on quite a few occasions seems altogether representative of Thio et al.’s (2018) discourse covering statistics, typologies, and theories presented, along with Joiner’s (2005) bedrock needs, and Adler & Adler’s (2004) approach to lonely deviance. A few things surfaced when taking memos and perhaps some of this is worthy of discussion. Respite is found in Joiner’s own quote of William James’ comment on social self, here clarified in the proper context (please note man in this context “man”, “he”, and “his” shall be an interchangeable indicator for socially aware intelligent being):

[A man’s Social Self is the recognition which he gets from his mates. We are not only gregarious animals, liking to be in sight of our fellows, but we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind.] No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof. If no one turned around when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met ‘cut us dead,’ or acted as if we were non-existent things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would before long well up in us, from which the cruelest bodily torture would be a relief. (James, 1890, pp. 293-294; brackets added to highlight the omitted text in Joiner [2005])

Thio et al.’s (2018) overview of suicidal experiences and self-harm runs the gamut (i.e., distribution of self-harm to suicide) of James’ asserted relief, having seen, known, and personally experienced a wide distribution. The omitted opening however is revealing—it indexes the quoted text toward a narcissistic tendency of social self. Yet after incubating thoughts, it was Joiner’s paper, that brought about a realization that theorists’ own problems, solutions, and frameworks proposed and offered are just as subject to Merton’s adaptations to strain; it seems as if Joiner’s examples are themselves variations on Scott & Lyman’s (1968) accounts. Joiner’s (2007) article itself employs examples of innovator/ritualist behavior as evidence of affiliation, missing the greater forests of sociological behaviors of an entire history of humanity subdued by thick light blocking canopies of mono-cultures of male-dominant ethnocentric imperialism.

Joiner’s Bedrock Needs Moderated By Merton’s Adaptations

As a psychologist, Joiner’s (2007) illumination of scientific difficulty identifying unmet fundamental needs leading to suicidality (p. 96) is solved by differentiating two core categories (i.e., “bedrock needs”) as inspired by Murray’s attempt to identify a basic need for affiliation (p. 98; Murray, 1938). The first core category of bedrock needs had been presented as Murray’s need for affiliation, de-jargonized into belonginess of frequent interaction and persistent caring (Joiner, 2007, p. 96; i.e., social-self reinforcement). The second core category of bedrock needs had been presented as effectiveness/sense of confidence (p. 97; i.e., self-efficacy [Bandura, 1977]). These bedrock needs seem concomitant with parallel efforts studying human behavior in the sub-psychological fields of humanist psychology. Considering that Joiner used the word “perceived” (Joiner, 2007, pp. 106-108), this lands square into sociological phenomenological theories, and seems especially close to cognitive psychology. Joiner’s “perceived burdensomeness” (pp. 98-99) appears directly congruous to cognitive distortion or maladaptive cognitions.

Considering the unreliability but general workability of suicide statistics (as cited in Thio et al., p. 151), and personal experience with a father having shared his own experiences both during, and after threats of suicide and attempted suicide, I’m not entirely convinced that suicide is driven by maladaptive cognition (attribution models [i.e., Markov chains] are complex; such is science). At some point, people’s experiences are valid—they do indeed experience interests that might bring them into a lack of belongingness in their born-into, and perhaps socially-immobile living conditions, requiring social mobility and social equity to afford mobility to distal groups (both temporal, spatial, and [redacted]) offering belongingness (i.e., external agents and socio-economic status), along with motivation and/or desires to seek out social-self reinforcements and self-efficacies in multiple domains (i.e., linguistic anthropological communities of practice [Lave & Wenger, 1991]). 

Joiner’s (2007) examples of a single “stable relationship” against a “changing cast of relationship partners” (p. 97) asserts that a single partner is a sign of stability. This, at first glance seemed twinged with a sense of religiosity—perhaps Joiner’s observation is a society solving Merton’s strain through ritualism where socially reinforced ritualism may cast stigma to those with multiple partners, leading to a lack of belongingness (e.g., just consider the stigma inter-racial couples and same-sex couples faced over thousands of years, and echoes of arguments over heterosexual dyands). I’d be curious to research more about what “stability” means, for stability seems a common theme in talk of suicide and psychometry. I’d wager that stability is measured differently between those falling into a nature-nurture machine of Merton’s (1957) typology of individual adaptations (e.g., conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion). Within the context of an adaptive approach to strain, what is a stable conformist, a stable innovator, a stable ritualist, a stable retreatist, and a stable rebel? If anything cultures/societies/groups themselves take on these characteristics, where “stable” is only stable as compared to others within similar adaptative strategies and tactics. Two examples Joiner offers are worth examining, because it becomes apparent that these examples may be pre-conceived adaptive strategies forcedinto a study of basic social process by adaptive pre-conceptions. This contaminates Joiner’s theory, but does not render the theory invalid.

Example 1: Failed Breadwinners and Social-Isolation

Take for example, Joiner’s (2007) example of the “failed breadwinner” (p. 110). Within the context of a culture of innovation and ritual (i.e., America) with its established norms, laws, moors, etc., would an innovating sex-worker unable to be a “successful breadwinner” be perceived by other innovators and ritualists as less stable? Of course. Joiner’s own arguments seem wrapped up in Merton’s typology. What if the sex worker had initially entered sex-work not to look for money, but for retreat, then only to later come to need to survive, against increasing inequality? That is not to say that Joiner’s proposals are not without explanatory power, but the examples offered seem contaminated by Joiner’s and Joiner’s cultural context of adaptive solutions because of anomie-strain. Indeed, suicide is both an individual-social issue, though it appears increasingly a social issue, and seems to increase with strain. There is wonder if a need to belong, itself, is an event schema expectancy more dominantly expressed in some typologies of Merton’s adaptation strategies than others. 

Example 2: Poets and “We”

Joiner’s example of poets is interesting along with its cited evidence of a decreasing use of “we” as proportional to suicidality, but what of the prevailing society and groups within which “we” is used? Is it more likely, via Occam’s Razor, that a poet’s lack of use of we, may evidence a change in interests altogether alienating to readers, possibly leading to alienation of the writer? In other words, is it possible that the lack of use of we signaled something a-priori to social disconnection? What if the poet just simply changed interests and could have survived better with a different audience, but due to latency in responding to audience demographic changes, the poet just fell into disrepute? Maybe a lot of suicide could be solved with solving social mobility (and no, I do not mean virtual mobility on the internet, talking to others generally does not pay the mortgage, pay for a much-needed operation, or pay off debts accruing high-interest obstructing further mobility). I’m not sure word counts of the use of “we” is a valid statistic in measuring social isolation; it seems unreliable as contaminated by cultural referents.

Thoughts in Discussion

Besides other evidence Joiner presents, it is uncertain if desire for death is generalizable, because it would seem more appropriate that “desire”, while a component of Merton’s innovator and ritualist types, may be diminished, if not absent in other types such as conforming, retreating, and possibly even rebelling types. “Desire”, in these cases may actually be more “motive”, especially with respect to rebels; they might be so busy motivated to resist, that they don’t have much time to, or just don’t think about or execute self-regulation toward desired outcomes (i.e., desires; a depressive symptom is anhedonia, literally meaning an absence of feeling pleasure [i.e. positive reinforcements] causal to desire). Perhaps suicide’s depression, apology, vindication, anger, atonement, magnanimity, and surrealism (Thio et al., 2018. pp. 145-146) are merely motivations sans social-self tactically solving under Merton’s typology crudely summarized as: final strain or strain finality. That is, society, as experienced, in the local topology of communication networks, as constrained by social mobility, just “cuts us dead”, to borrow from James.1

It may be worth briefly considering Adler & Adler’s (2005) concept of lonely deviants, because having witnessed and experienced self-injurious behavior, I have met and know of some other earlier lonely deviants who have survived self-injury and gone onto very “successful” careers. In many cases, it was not interactivity and social support that led to generativity and overall positive affect, but the lack of self-referencing and we-referencing through awareness that “self-referencing” and “we-referencing” is merely cognitive trickery during self-injury—just this knowledge alone allowed experiences to be investigated, explored, and studied, offering not resiliency, but neutralization of labeling, shame, identification with forms of adaptations. This awareness supported social interaction, not the other way around. In addition, there had been more awareness of social reinforcements, controls, and conflicts. Self-referencing’s absence offered neutralization to James’ aforementioned “fiendish punishment”, resulting in direct unabashed study and application of studious findings. Rage? No. Intense curiosity? Yes. Science uncontaminated by anomie-strain is peaceful, and worth re-reading.2 The “we” and “I” internalize deviancy through memory enhancement; it makes sense to a conformist type.

In closing, this is a discussion post, and not a formal assessment, review, analysis, meta-analysis, nor peer review, though feedback would be appreciated. It now seems possible that there lies some more inquiry into intersections of earlier deviant typologies and subsequent sociological studies that could be revealed under the insight that research itself is as much beholden to sociological factors, as society. Even this very post is influenced by aspects of self-reference effect (i.e., “I”), known to enhance memory (Rogers, Kuiper, & Kirker, 1977). It is utterly probable that there is a social-reference effect (i.e., “we”) enhancing memory. As to what Merton’s typology of deviancy “we” reinforces, it is recommended to lightly consider it, and bring in the “heavier guns” of Kruglanski et al.’s (2021) more compelling basic social process of deviancy revealed and exemplified via terrorism: significance quest theory.3 I don’t find it hard to believe that this theory is generalizable to deviancy entire against a context of rising inequality and diminishing share of voice.

Considering this brief study on suicide and self-harm, it now seems apparent that societies themselves express suicide and self-harm—Russian government behaviors, the West’s government behaviors in alienation, and its possible consequences for far more impacting the global family around Ukraine are remarkable given theory and evidence of that leading to self-harm and suicide. An overextension of theory and language? Perhaps, yet perhaps not. I think Thio et. al have exemplified an interdisciplinary approach to deviancy. This is hopeful, rather than fields arguing for primacy of its studies compared to others in field games of “who moved my cheese” (Johnson, 1988). I like a multi-disciplinary approach, am impressed by it, and am moved to continue forward within it. Further study is not only needed, but I feel necessary to correct policies and compensate impacts of many ill-informed policies informed by not theory, but biased examples of theory (i.e., maladaptive cognitions). For those struggling with self-harm and toward suicide, perhaps the grass was greener on the other side (i.e., anomie-strain); why else do people move for better opportunities?


1 It is noteworthy, and easy to gloss over, but William James uses the word “us” in “cuts us dead”; either James’ own sense of community is as parapraxis (i.e., Freudian slip) or that some aspect of community in those struggling with the experience of isolation has not yet been abandoned.

2 Re-reading is a play on the etymology for religion, which comes means: to read again (Harper, 2022).

What I like about significance quest theory (SQT) is that it simultaneously recognizes needs, narratives, and networks (Webber & Kruglanski., 2017), putting away any mono/bi-polar views of causality with respect to deviancy.


Adler, P. A., & Adler, P. (2005). Self-injurers as loaners. Deviant Behavior, 26(4), 345-378. https://doi.org/10.1080/016396290931696

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory, Vol. 1., Prentice-Hall.

Harper, D. (2022). Religion. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.etymonline.com/word/religion (Links to an external site.).

James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology, Vol. 1. Henry Holt and Company.

Johnson, S. (1998). Who moved my cheese? Penguin Publishing Group.

Joiner, T. (2005). Why people die by suicide. Harvard University Press.

Kruglanski, A. W., Molinario, E., Jasko, K., Webber, D., Leander, N. P., & Pierro, A. (2021). Significance-Quest Theory. Perspectives on Psychological Science. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/17456916211034825

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

Murray, H. A. (1938). Explorations in personality: A clinical and experimental study of fifty men of college age. Oxford University Press.

Rogers, T. B., Kuiper, N. A., & Kirker, W. S. (1977). Self-reference and the encoding of personal information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(9), 677-688.

Scott, M. B., & Lyman, S. M. (1968). Accounts. American Sociological Review, 33(1), 46-62.

Thio, A., Taylor, J., Schwartz, M. D. (2018). Deviant behavior, 12th edition. Pearson.

Webber, D., & Kruglanski, A. W. (2017). Psychological factors in radicalization: A “3 N” approach. In G. LaFree & J. D. Freilich (Eds.), The handbook of the criminology of terrorism (pp. 33-46). Wiley.

Implement Change:

“Further study is not only needed, but I feel necessary to correct policies and compensate impacts of many ill-informed policies informed by not theory, but biased examples of theory (i.e., maladaptive cognitions).” 


“It seems that further study is not only needed, but necessary to correct policies that <will|are|had> impact|ing|ed>4ecology as a result of biased maladaptive policies informed by not theories, but by mere echos of examples of them, where examples typified select uni/bi/n-lateral Merton adaptive strategies (i.e., maladaptive cognitions), resulting in adaptive-fixation (i.e., stagnation [i.e., Moynihan’s (1992) ‘defining deviancy down’]).”

Add note:

4 written in MDL to convey a-temporality, because “will impact, are impacting, and impacted” is reducible to “<will|are|had> impact|ing|ed>”, resulting in less code switching (i.e., linguistic [i.e., packing problem solution]) between Chomsky’s competence and performance, allowing memory to remember via flow state orientation rather than self-referencing, and we-referencing, where flow measured on a dimension of velocity, congruent with metabolic efficiency with respect to resource demand and supply curves. This results in a peaceful abiding to needs rather than wants for the missing type in Merton’s adaptive typology: scientist—those strained, adapting by one simple act: to know. If it sounds religious, it’s because—it is exactly religion (“to read again”), and what is read again? That which is studied, realized, applied, and <a|e>ffected.

Add reference:

Moynihan, D. P. (1992). Defining deviancy down. The American Scholar, 62(1), 17-30.

Implement change:

Well done [U.S. Government]!

Add note:

5 Bin-Packing Problem vs. Inter-Bin Navigability (i.e., abodes vs. roads).