Working Papers

2007-12 | July 2010


Relative Status and Well-Being: Evidence from U.S. Suicide Deaths


This paper assesses the importance of interpersonal income comparisons using individual level data on suicide deaths. Our analysis considers whether suicide risk is systematically related to the income of others, holding own income and other individual and environmental factors fixed. We estimate proportional hazards and probit models of the suicide hazard using two separate and independent data sets: (1) the National Longitudinal Mortality Study and (2) the National Center for Health Statistics’ Mortality Detail Files combined with the 5 percent Public Use Micro Sample of the 1990 decennial census. Results from both data sources show that, controlling for own income and individual characteristics, individual suicide risk rises with reference group income. This result holds for reference groups defined either by county or more narrowly by county and one demographic marker (e.g., age, sex, race). These findings are robust to alternative specifications and cannot be explained by geographic variation in cost of living, access to emergency medical care, or suicide misclassification. Our results support findings using self-reported happiness data and are consistent with models of utility featuring “external habit” or “Keeping Up with the Joneses” preferences.

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