The acquired capability for suicide: A comparison of suicide attempters, suicide ideators, and non-suicidal controls

Phillip N. Smith, Kelly C. Cukrowicz, Erin K. Poindexter, Valerie Hobson, Lee M. Cohen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

135 Scopus citations


Background: The Interpersonal Theory of Suicide states that to make a serious or lethal suicide attempt, a person must experience reductions in fear and pain sensitivity sufficient to overcome self preservation reflexes (i.e., the acquired capability for suicide). The purpose of this study was to examine the fearlessness component of the acquired capability for suicide using self-report assessment instruments and an objective measure of aversion (the affectively modulated startle reflex task). Methods: Depressed suicide ideators (n=15), depressed suicide attempters (n=15), and a group of control participants (n=14) were compared on their self-report of acquired capability and painful and provocative life events, and completed the affectively modulated startle reflex task. This task compared electromyography recordings of participants' eye-blink response to a startle probe while viewing pictures of varying hedonic valence (neutral, positive, negative, and suicide-related). Results: Suicide attempters reported the highest levels of fearlessness and pain insensitivity and a greater history of painful and provocative life events. Although no group differences were found on the psychophysiology data, participants reacted to suicide-related images with less aversion compared to neutral images with no differences between suiciderelated and positive images. Conclusions: Self-reported fearlessness and pain insensitivity can differentiate suicide attempters and suicide ideators. Results suggest that one's self-perception (i.e., cognitions regarding fear and pain tolerance) are more functionally related to suicide attempts than psychophysiological reactivity to suicide-related stimuli.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)871-877
Number of pages7
JournalDepression and Anxiety
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2010


  • Acquired capability for suicide
  • Interpersonal theory
  • Self-harm
  • Suicide
  • Suicide ideation


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