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The effect of high-stakes testing on suicidal ideation of teenagers with reference-dependent preferences


This paper offers a novel explanation for why even high-performing individuals may have a high suicidal tendency when preferences are reference-dependent. Using survey data of South Korean secondary school students, this paper demonstrates that the relationship between suicidal ideation and test performance is consistent with the reference-dependent explanation. When a student’s rank in the high-stakes College Scholastic Ability Test falls below her expectation, she exhibits a higher likelihood of having suicidal ideation. The findings highlight the potentially adverse consequences of disappointment in high-stakes testing and suggest that the risk of suicide may be significant among high achievers too.

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Fig. 1


  1. Some other papers show no or negative effects of testing on various outcome measures. For example, Muralidharan and Sundararaman (2010) find no evidence that low-stakes diagnostic testing improves students’ academic performance in India. Glewwe et al. (2010), Figlio and Winicki (2005), and Jacob and Levitt (2003) show that the presence of high-stakes testing leads to perverse practices among teachers and schools.

  2. Lamielle (1981, p. 281) makes a similar point in discussing the “idiothetic” psychology of personality. He argues that individuals evaluate their performance “not in terms of what others do, but in terms of what themselves tend not to do but could do.”

  3. The study of the demographic, social, and economic determinants of suicide dates back to Emile Durkheim’s Suicide in 1897.

  4. See Koszegi and Rabin (2006) for a discussion on stochastic or anticipated reference points.

  5. In this alternative case of attempted suicide, W min may be greater than that in the case of actual suicide.

  6. The data are available at the National Youth Policy Institute’s (NYPI) Youth and Children data archive:

  7. The CSAT was held on November 15, 2007 and the survey was conducted after the students took the CSAT and before December 22, 2007.

  8. The students reported only their CSAT digit scores, which range from 1 to 9, where 1 is the highest score.

  9. The Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE), which administers the CSAT, kindly provided the data.

  10. I find that among all the students sampled in wave 1, those who responded to wave 5 and reported their CSAT performance in wave 6 tend to have more educated parents and better past in-school performance.

  11. Any reference points constructed on the basis of this predictive model would likely limit the role of misreporting (the CSAT scores) in explaining the results. Specifically, if depressed students are more likely to under-report and optimistically happy students are more likely to over-report their CSAT performance, the variation in the CSAT scores may capture the variation in suicidal ideation that is not driven by disappointment in the CSAT performance. If the characteristics of the students included on the right-hand side of this predictive model are highly correlated with optimistic attitude, the misreporting errors would be differenced out when computing the test performance deviations from the reference points.

  12. The main results reported in Table 3 remain similar when the indicator of parental expectation is included as a control variable.


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I am grateful to Birendra Rai, Russell Smyth, and anonymous referees for their constructive comments and suggestions that significantly improved the paper. I also thank Youjin Hahn, Jeff LaFrance, Anmol Ratan, Christis Tombazos, Michael Ward, and seminar participants at Monash University for helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Liang Choon Wang.

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Wang, L.C. The effect of high-stakes testing on suicidal ideation of teenagers with reference-dependent preferences. J Popul Econ 29, 345–364 (2016).

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  • Academic achievement
  • Anchoring
  • Reference-dependent preferences
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Mental health

JEL classification

  • I12
  • I21
  • I31