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


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.

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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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Correspondence to Christine L. McKibbin.

Appendix: Vignettes

Appendix: Vignettes


Imagine a person named Jamie. Usually Jamie gets along well with his family and coworkers. He enjoys reading and going out with friends. About a year ago Jamie started thinking that people were spying on him and trying to hurt him. Jamie became convinced that people could hear what he was thinking. He also heard voices when no one else was around. Sometimes he even thought people on TV were sending messages especially to him. Jamie began to isolate himself because he believed that many people were out to get him. Jaime’s friends and family became extremely worried about his increasingly odd behavior. After living this way for about 6 months, Jamie was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

Major depression

Imagine a person named Jamie. Usually Jamie gets along well with his family and coworkers. He enjoys reading and going out with friends. About a year ago Jamie started feeling very down and unhappy. Jamie found it very hard to get out of bed, get dressed, and go to work, or do anything. Jamie just did not get any pleasure out of anything the way he normally would. He often did not feel like eating and he had trouble sleeping. Jamie also felt completely worthless and even had thoughts about killing himself. After having these problems off and on for about 6 months, Jamie was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

Bipolar disorder

Imagine a person named Jamie. Usually Jamie gets along well with his family and coworkers. He enjoys reading and going out with friends. About a year ago Jamie started to experience significant changes in his mood. He experienced periods where his mood became very elevated. During these periods, Jamie slept very little and spent many hours on school work and other projects. Additionally, during these periods, Jamie’s friends said he became so talkative and hyper that he was difficult to understand. At other times Jamie would feel so down that he lost interest in everything and avoided friends and family. During these periods, Jamie had thoughts about killing himself. After having these mood swings for about 6 months, Jamie was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

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Lee, A.A., Laurent, S.M., Wykes, T.L. et al. Genetic attributions and mental illness diagnosis: effects on perceptions of danger, social distance, and real helping decisions. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 49, 781–789 (2014).

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  • Genetic
  • Essentialism
  • Mental illness
  • Social distance
  • Helping