Genetic attributions and mental illness diagnosis: effects on perceptions of danger, social distance, and real helping decisions

  • Aaron A. Lee
  • Sean M. Laurent
  • Thomas L. Wykes
  • Katherine A. Kitchen Andren
  • Katelynn A. Bourassa
  • Christine L. McKibbinEmail author
Original Paper


Genetic essentialism suggests that beliefs in genetic causes of mental illness will inflate a desire for social distance from affected individuals, regardless of specific disorder. However, genetic contingency theory predicts that genetic attributions will lead to an increased desire for social distance only from persons with disorders who are perceived as dangerous.


To assess the interactive effect of diagnosis and attribution on social distance and actual helping decisions across disorders.


Undergraduate students (n = 149) were randomly assigned to read one of the six vignettes depicting a person affected by one of the three disorders (i.e., schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression) with either a genetic or environmental causal attribution for disorder. Participants completed measures of perceived dangerousness, social distance, empathic concern, familiarity with mental illness, and actual helping decisions.


When provided with genetic attributions, participants’ desire for social distance was greater for targets with schizophrenia relative to targets with depression or bipolar disorder. This effect was mediated by perceived dangerousness. The indirect effect of diagnosis on helping decisions, through social distance, was significant within the genetic attribution condition.


Consistent with genetic contingency theory, genetic attributions for schizophrenia, but not affective disorders, lead to greater desire for social distance via greater perceived dangerousness. Further, results suggest that genetic attributions decrease the likelihood of helping people with schizophrenia, but have no effect on the likelihood of helping people with affective disorders. These effects are partially accounted for by desired social distance from people with schizophrenia.


Genetic Essentialism Mental illness Social distance Helping 



This project was supported in part by grants from the National Center for Research Resources (P20RR016474) and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (P20GM103432) from the National Institutes of Health. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Aaron A. Lee
    • 1
  • Sean M. Laurent
    • 2
  • Thomas L. Wykes
    • 1
  • Katherine A. Kitchen Andren
    • 1
  • Katelynn A. Bourassa
    • 1
  • Christine L. McKibbin
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of WyomingLaramieUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of OregonEugeneUSA

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