Since then, Nock, 38, has generated some of the most
innovative and important research to date on suicide and self-harm, which earned him a prestigious $500,000 MacArthur
Fellowship in September. The five-year “genius grant” supports
scholars and others who are doing exceptionally creative and
promising work. The prize will allow Nock to expand his efforts
to tease out the predictors of self-injury and suicide and focus
on his most recent work to measure thoughts of self-injury and
suicide in real time through the use of digital diaries and other
“These are thoughts and behaviors that are really tough to
capture,” says Nock, editor of the 2009 book “Understanding
Non-Suicidal Injury.” “We can’t ethically induce them in the lab,
U.S. Army, known as STARRS (the Study to Assess Risk and
Resilience in Servicemembers). With researchers from the
National Institute of Mental Health, the Army and several
universities, Nock is using the military’s wealth of health and
service data to investigate soldier suicides from the last five
He and his colleagues are sifting through information
on everything from a soldier’s military rank and promotion
history to dental and medical records. Fusing this data will
hopefully reveal clues as to what prompted these particular
soldiers to choose suicide while others responded with
resilience, says Nock.
“We are also interviewing family members and supervisors
“Matt can put ideas together in a comprehensive theory
that most people wouldn’t ever think of doing. He is the
leading clinical psychologist in the country, and No. 2 is
too far away to even see him.”
ALAN E. KAZDIN
so we really need to be creative in how we capture these things
of these soldiers to see if we can paint the picture of what was
out in nature.”
happening with them,” says Nock.
For the past two years, Nock and his research team have
Fellow STARRS investigator Ronald C. Kessler, PhD, says
been using electronic diaries and portable heart rate monitors
Nock brings “a rare combination of intellectual breadth and
to gauge people’s emotional and physical states before, during
depth” to such an important study. “He works across the
and after self-injury episodes. So far, his findings support what
spectrum from studies of neurobiological substrates to in-depth
many people struggling with self-injury have noted for years —
studies of clinical cases to studies of enormous epidemiological
that self-harming soothes them.
samples,” Kessler says. “I don’t know anyone who covers this
Data show that there is increased arousal right before self-
range, let alone someone who does so in a way that makes
injury, and a huge decrease right after, says Nock.
important contributions to each of these areas.”
“That change is much sharper than what we see when people
Nock’s graduate school adviser and mentor, Alan E.
engage in other behaviors to try to relax, like meditation or
Kazdin, PhD, of Yale University, agrees that the MacArthur
reading a book or deep breathing,” he says.
Foundation made a wise investment. “Matt can put ideas
Nock and his team have also found that little time elapses
together in a comprehensive theory that most people would
between when adolescents first think about hurting themselves
not ever think of doing,” says Kazdin. “He is the leading
and then try it, and that these youth aren’t experiencing much
pain — if any at all — when they cut or burn themselves.
clinical psychologist in the country, and No. 2 is too far away
to even see him.” n
“Self-injurers ... can tolerate much more pain than
noninjurers,” he says.
When he’s not in his Harvard lab or teaching classes, Nock
is an investigator for a large-scale study of suicide risk for the
Click here to watch a MacArthur Foundation
video about Nock’s research.