One of the most delightful ways of testing social opinion has got to be the ‘lost letter’ technique, where researchers ‘lose’ paid up letters addressed to various controversial organisations to see how many get dropped back in the post box.
A new study, led by psychologist Tracey Witte, used exactly this technique and suggests that stigma concerning suicide may be improving as they found no difference in the amount of ‘lost letters’ that reached their final destination between those addressed to the fictional organisations the ‘American Heart Disease Research Foundation’, the ‘American Diabetes Research Foundation’ and the ‘American Suicide Research Foundation’.
In case you’re wondering, the addresses are otherwise identical (the same PO Box number) to reduce any other forms of bias. Only the names differ.
There have been some inventive ‘lost letter’ studies in the past, including the original 1965 one which found that three quarters of the letters to the ‘Medical Research Associates’ or a ‘Mr. Walter Carnap’ arrived at their destination but only one quarter of those addressed to either ‘Friends of the Communist Party’ or ‘Friends of the Nazi Party’ arrived.
Perhaps more relevant to today’s climate was a study completed in California in the year 2000 which found that letters addressed to the ‘Gay Marriage Foundation’ were significantly less likely to be returned than letters addressed to the ‘Blue Sky Foundation’.
As the researchers of the new study on suicide stigma note, one of the advantages of the technique is that it’s unobtrusive and “exceedingly unlikely that participants in these studies even know that their behavior is being measured by researchers.”
Link to PubMed entry for suicide ‘lost letter’ study.