This came in the spam the other day:
College Station, TX–August 16, 2010–Change and hope were central themes to the November 2008 U.S. presidential election. A new longitudinal study published in the September issue of Social Science Quarterly analyzes suicide rates at a state level from 1981ï¼2005 and determines that presidential election outcomes directly influence suicide rates among voters.
In states where the majority of voters supported the national election winner suicide rates decreased. However, counter-intuitively, suicide rates decreased even more dramatically in states where the majority of voters supported the election loser (4.6 percent lower for males and 5.3 lower for females). This article is the first in its field to focus on candidate and state-specific outcomes in relation to suicide rates. Prior research on this topic focused on whether the election process itself influenced suicide rates, and found that suicide rates fell during the election season.
Richard A. Dunn, Ph.D., lead author of the study, credits the power of social cohesion, “Sure, supporting the loser stinks, but if everyone around you supported the loser, it isn’t as bad because you feel connected to those around you. In other words, it is more comforting to be a Democrat in Massachusetts or Rhode Island when George W. Bush was re-elected than to be the lonely Democrat in Idaho or Oklahoma.”
Researchers have commonly thought that people who are less connected to other members of society are more likely to commit suicide. The authors of the study first became interested in this concept when studying the effect of job loss and unemployment on suicide risk, which theoretically causes people to feel less connected to society. The authors realized that while previous work had explored whether events that brought people together and reaffirmed their shared heritage such as elections, war, religious and secular holidays lowered suicide rates, researchers had generally ignored how the outcomes of these events could also influence suicide risk.
The study holds implications for public health researchers studying the determinants of suicide risk, sociologists studying the role of social cohesion and political scientists studying the rhetoric of political campaigns.
I want to laugh at this sort of thing . . . but, hey, I have an article (with Lane Kenworthy) scheduled to appear in Social Science Quarterly. I just hope that when they send out mass emails about it, they link to the article itself rather than, as above, generically to the journal.
More seriously, I don’t want to mock these researchers at all. In most of my social science research, I’m a wimp, reporting descriptive results and usually making causal claims in a very cagey way. (There are rare exceptions, such as our estimates of the effect of incumbency and the effects of redistricting. But in these examples we had overwhelming data on our side. Usually, as in Red State, Blue State, I’m content to just report the data and limit my exposure to more general claims.) In contrast, the authors of the above article just go for it. As Jennifer says, causal inference is what people really want–and what they should want–and so my timidity in this regard should be no sort of model for social science researchers.
With regard to the substance of their findings, I don’t buy it. The story seems too convoluted, and the analysis seems to have too many potential loopholes, for me to have any confidence at all in the claims presented in the article. Sure, they found an intriguing pattern in their data, but the paper does not look to me to be a thorough examination of the questions that they’re studying.
P.S. to those who think I’m being too critical here:
Hey, this is just a blog and I’m talking about a peer-reviewed publication in a respectable journal. I’m not saying that you, the reader, should disbelieve Classen and Dunn’s claims, just because I’m not convinced.
I’m a busy person (aren’t we all) and don’t have the time or inclination right now to go into the depths of the article and find out where their mistakes are (or, alternatively, to look at their article closely enough to be convinced by it). So you can take my criticisms as seriously as they deserve to be taken.
Given that I haven’t put in the work, and Classen and Dunn have, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for you to believe what they wrote. And it would be completely reasonable for them, if they happen to run across this blog, to respond with annoyance to my free-floating skepticism. I’m just calling this one as I see it, while recognizing that I have not put in the effort to look into it in detail. Those readers who are interested in the subject can feel free to study the matter further.