Rock ’n’ Roll Suicides: An Economist’s Approach

Last Saturday, Amy Winehouse, a fragile English Jewish girl, one of the most beautiful voices in rock history, died in London. Her name joins the long list of rock musicians, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain to name a few, who were consumed by a “reckless life” and died by overdose, suicide, alcohol, or were murdered as John Lennon.  “Cursed artists” are not lacking in painting and visual arts (from Gaugin, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe to Van Gogh, Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko), and literature, where many writers suffered from major depression (Dickinson, Eliot, Poe, Balzac, Conrad, Dickens, Emerson, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Ibsen, Melville, Tolstoj), and in some cases, ended in suicide (Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Wolf).

Rock & Jazz
The rockers are the epigones of many great jazz musicians, many of whom had serious addiction problems, like Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Billie Holliday, Bill Evans, Hampton Hawes (1). But while many of the latter achieved success only after a long time of hardships and sufferings, think of Billie Holliday who had a past as a prostitute, Amy Winehouse achieved worldwide fame and success when young. Explaining such self-destructive choices is not easy, in general, nor is it not for economic theory. What do we know about the most radical and definitive choice people can make, that to commit suicide?

Empirical Evidence
From the website World Health Organization we learn that

– The phenomenon  affects every country in the world (there is no data on Africa) in very different ways: suicide rates range from over 13 suicides per 100 thousand inhabitants in the Nordic countries and the former Soviet Union, to between 6.5  -13 In North America, India and Oceania, and less than 6.5 suicides in Southern Europe and South America (data for 2000, see Figure 1). This suggests that the cultural and religious factors, (see the French sociologist Durkheim, Le Suicide, étude de sociologie,   1897), play an important role.

Figure 1: map of suicide rates

– In fact the relationship between suicide rates in different countries and per capita income (adjusted for purchasing power parity, source World Bank) is rather complicated. Below I will show the results of a bivariate (nonlinear) regression (2) between these two variables. The (male) incidence of suicides  seems to rise together with per capita GDP , up to an income of $ 15.870 per year, and remain essentially unchanged above this threshold (Figure 2). Other factors such as age, mental state, the behavior of the reference group, family status, socialization, religion etc. probably play a decisive role.

Figure 2:  MARS Regression of male suicide rates (y) on per capita income (x), elaboration by the author (see footnote 2)

– Female suicide rates are much lower than those of men, and both increase (almost) monotonically with age (see Figure 3 below, the source World Health Organization, WHO);

Fig.3: Distribution by age and sex of suicide rates

The Economic Theory of Suicide: Costs and Benefits

The economic contribution that I found most interesting about JSTOR, the online site where there are major scientific journals, is that of Daniel S. Hamermesh and Neal M. Soss, “An Economic Theory of Suicide”(3).  If we consider suicide as a rational choice, then an individual will choose to commit suicide (if and) when the discounted value of the satisfaction they expect to get from life becomes less than her residual attachment to life. In the words of Schopenhauer“.. as soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life.” [Studies on Pessimism, On Suicide, 1892]

Youth and Women
There are three implications of the theory. The first is that you would expect a higher incidence of suicide for older cohorts of the population, those for which can expect less for their remaining life. This implication is consistent with the empirical observations that the suicide rate increases with age. The second is that individuals who have higher living standards (measured by their “permanent income” ) should kill themselves less often. Also, if people become more pessimistic about their future during periods of high unemployment, these periods should witness a higher incidence of suicides. In their study the authors find that these implications are supported from the empirical analysis, but with one important exception.  For young people in the age group between 25 and 34, a rise in permanent income (and/or a fall in unemployment) is  associated with an increase in their suicide rate (just like in the estimated relationship between per capita GDP and suicide rates across countries). Moreover, how can the theory reconcile the fact that women commit suicide much less frequently than men, despite their on average income being on average lower?

At least for women and the young, money is not everything: this is the lesson that the sad story of Amy Winehouse seems to remind us.


(1)    For a sociological study on ‘use of drugs in the community of jazz musicians, see Howard S. Becker, “Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance”, The Free Press, New York, 1963)

(2)    In this simple exercise there is no additional control , so the omitted variable problem could bias the coefficients. Moreover, the comparability of suicide data can be questionable if some countries, attaching stigma to suicide for religious reason, under report suicide episodes. The Regression was estimated with the Multivariate Adaptive Regression Spline algorithm, see Friedman, J. H (1991). ” Multivariate Adaptive Regression Splines” (with discussion). Annals of Statistics 19, 1.

(3)    Daniel S. Hamermesh and Neal M. Soss, “An Economic Theory of Suicide” (Journal of Political Economy, Vol 82, No. 1, Jan. – Feb., 1974, pp. 83-98)

One Response to "Rock ’n’ Roll Suicides: An Economist’s Approach"

  1. gamma_citizen   July 28, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    Fortunately, for the most talented ones (see name list in the article above), money is not everything.

    I cheated myself, like I knew I would.

    Amy, if the money addicts ever would understand this…