Human Nature

, Volume 30, Issue 1, pp 117–141 | Cite as

When Saying “Sorry” Isn’t Enough: Is Some Suicidal Behavior a Costly Signal of Apology?

A Cross-Cultural Test
  • Kristen L. Syme
  • Edward H. HagenEmail author


Lethal and nonlethal suicidal behaviors are major global public health problems. Much suicidal behavior (SB) occurs after the suicide victim committed a murder or other serious transgression. The present study tested a novel evolutionary model termed the Costly Apology Model (CAM) against the ethnographic record. The bargaining model (BRM) sees nonlethal suicidal behavior as an evolved costly signal of need in the wake of adversity. Relying on this same theoretical framework, the CAM posits that nonlethal suicidal behavior can sometimes serve as an honest signal of apology in the wake of committing a severe transgression, thereby repairing valuable social relationships. To test this hypothesis, the CAM was operationalized into a set of variables, and two independent coders coded 473 text records on suicidal behavior from 53 cultures from the probability sample of the Human Relations Area Files. The results indicated that in ethnographic accounts of suicidal behavior, transgressions, punishment, and shame were relatively common, supporting the CAM, but explicit motives to apologize and evidence of forgiveness were rare, contrary to the CAM. The theoretical variables of the CAM nevertheless formed a cluster distinct from the BRM, and a subset of cases of suicidal behavior were largely related to transgressions and other CAM variables rather than BRM or other variables. Support for the CAM varied widely across cultures, but there was evidence for it in every major geographical region. Exploratory analyses suggested that the CAM is potentially more likely to occur in response to severe conflicts concerning transgressions committed against nonkin. Furthermore, in text records that involved transgressions, male suicidal behavior was most frequently associated with murder, whereas female suicidal behavior was most frequently associated with sexual transgressions. In conclusion, the results provided mixed support for the hypothesis that some instances of suicidal behavior function to send a costly signal of apology to those harmed by a transgression.


Suicidal behavior Cross-cultural analysis Costly signaling Bargaining Mental health Evolutionary medicine 



This project was funded by NSF-BCS #1355469. We thank Caitlyn Calsbeek for assistance coding the text records, and Paul Andrews, Andy Thomson, Benjamin Gelbart, and one anonymous reviewer for numerous useful comments and suggestions.

Supplementary material

12110_2018_9333_MOESM1_ESM.docx (282 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 282 kb)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyWashington State UniversityPullmanUSA

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